How to Work Abroad and Find Overseas Jobs

A Little Thought… On Why I Left to Travel, How I Pay for It, and How to Work as an Expat

Mythology and story, new cultures, and finding just the right way to describe what it feels like to watch a new day begin as the the sun warms the streets of an unknown city . . . these are the things I usually think about when writing new posts. How can I transport other people into a new place?

Since many readers won’t make it on a rickety bus rocketing through the dry deserts of India, I share that with words and photos. It’s those travel moments that compelled me to keep up travel blogging—the want to share the experiences and the stories along the way.

What I rarely talk about is a bit less glamorous and a lot more personal. More pointedly: my job. I’ve only mentioned my work a handful of times on the site, but after many emails from the ALA community about how to save for travel—and more specifically, how I afforded a long-term route around the world for a year! And then for another nine years and counting.

Now, I decided I have something to say to the countless travelers and dreamers emailing about how to work remotely, and how to build a digital nomad lifestyle, or work internationally.

How I’ve Worked Online for 15+ Years

Watching Titanic in 3D in Phnom Penh
My niece and I visited an expat friend who lives and works full time in Cambodia. The three of us found a theatre playing Titanic in 3D and yes, oh yes, we went to see it!

To those not keen to live as a digital nomad, why not try on life as a true expatriate.

After months backpacking Southeast Asia, my niece and I stayed with Anna Jura, a traveling expat friend living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She works in the public health sector and navigates the ins and outs of finding expat work abroad. As an aside, having Anna (my friend) and Ana (my niece) share names made for a fun week of confusion and I often elicited raised eyebrows pointed in my direction since the dynamics of talking to an 11-year-old are a far-cry different from talking to another adult! :-)

Anyways, Anna opened her door to us with a spare bedroom, opened her evenings to us with wandering rants about local Cambodian politics and culture, and with enthusiasm she showed us the tastier eats around her city.

More than that though, she showed me what it is like to truly work abroad an expat in a city you’re in because you like both the city and your work.

cambodian food

A simple veggie fare for lunch...not really Cambodian, but delicious!

Why You Should Work Overseas

Chalk it up to lack of critical thought on the subject, but in my narrow world, it hadn’t fully occurred to me to encourage people to find work in their field of study. To actually take their University degrees and apply for work abroad.

Over the years, I have given a lot of advice in emails always encouraging people to embrace online, remote-based work.

I wrote to one questioning traveler: “Think about all of your unique skills and leverage those into remote-based consulting.”  And to another I emailed that she could “build up freelance gigs in one of her skill-sets or consider teaching English abroad.”

My niece and I cooked a thank you breakfast on our last day for Anna and her neighbor!

All of this is good advice if you want to work from a laptop;  and that is my primary frame of reference. I have said it before in places on this website, what differentiates me from many round the world and gap-year travelers is that I worked the entire time.

In the past six years, I have only truly taken two long breaks from my SEO consulting work, my freelance online work, and the weekly upkeep on this blog. One break was in 2009 on my RTW trip for a ten-day Vipassana Meditation course in Nepal; I spent ten days in complete silence and they locked all our gadgets and notepads in the center’s storage areas for the entire ten days. The other break was in Myanmar earlier this year; I knew the internet was intermittent in the country and welcomed three weeks offline, only checking in once or twice to make sure there were no fires to squash.

How to Work Abroad and Find Overseas Jobs
My “office” is usually a wifi cafe somewhere in the world . . . and the best cafes have fellow blogging friends gracing their tables like Jodi of Legal Nomads and James from Nomadic Notes!

My “office” is usually a wifi cafe somewhere in the world . . . and the best cafes have fellow blogging friends gracing their tables like Jodi of Legal Nomads and James from Nomadic Notes!

It’s worth noting that I left back in 2008 to travel knowing this was my reality, knowing I wouldn’t have the same freedoms of other 20-something backpackers who had spent years saving up, then quit their jobs and traveled unhindered and free to indulge in each travel moment. It’s a great story, the quit my job and traveled story, but it’s not my story. I have no regrets, and the fact that I can work remotely regularly makes it on my daily gratitude list.

My Backstory (Exactly How I Pay my Bills)

For a season of my life, I worked at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles. I do believe those three-and-a-half months qualify as my only “real job” after college. Well, the only 9 to 5 I’ve ever worked, I should say. I took the NYFA job to help myself transition from living in Florida to living in California.

I moved to LA just after graduating college in 2006, and, like so many other young actors, ambition, naïvety, and likely a hint of narcissism fueled me through the move. But, even back then, I had lucked into fully online based work through a series of happenstance connections shaped by the people, professors, and friends I met while studying at University.

So, I took a location-based job. And I did it simply to meet new friends and find an instant community in a town where finding a community is the only way to survive the crushing anonymity of living in a city with nearly four million inhabitants.

Graduating college in 2006
Graduating university and just a month before I decided to pack up and spontaneously move to Los Angeles, California to pursue acting and continue my online work.

I had worked with NYFA on their annual summer program in Orlando, Florida, so they were a logical choice when I wanted part-time work. It was a three-day-a-week job that necessitated a blouse, skirt, and super cute heels. The outfits were the best part of that job. That’s not to say anything about the company, my colleagues welcomed me, the NYFA students were bright and passionate, and the work was challenging.

But I hated the lack of power, the oversight of a boss when I’d only previously justified my time-management on projects to myself. And lest you think I simply didn’t like work and skated through University on a trust fund, I got a full merit-based scholarship to the University of Central Florida, and I waited tables, bartended, and nannied to pay for the other costs; each of these was a job I loved aspects of, though the former two were jobs I swore I’d never return to again once I graduated.

Back to Los Angeles. I found myself in the routine, packing my lunch each day, the same smiles, the same jokes with friends, and after-work exhaustion, or happy hour on a good day. And it didn’t feel like me. There was a restlessness stirring inside of me, fighting the constraints in the daily routine.

So I quit. Okay, not quite like that, I finished the project . . . my fancy title was the Assistant Director of New Programs, and what it boiled down to was me co-writing an application to grant MFA degrees from one of the NYFA programs. With the project finished, rather than stay on, I gave a cheery goodbye ( still on good terms). Then I went back to my online work, nannied for two families in LA, and spent another year and a half toiling through life as an actor in Los Angeles.

I had an epiphany of sorts, in a conversation with my dad . . . I told him how I was itching to move again, and since I had enough SEO consulting work I was thinking of moving to Boston for a change of scenery. He said “Well, you can pretty much work from anywhere, so I say do it.”

And to this day my dad maintains that he never imagined the sorts ideas that conversation would spark. Within two weeks I had embraced the concept: I bought a one-way ticket to Australia, gave notice to my landlord, and decided to leave acting behind for a while and instead travel and work.

hollywood sign, los angeles
My last day in the US back in 2008, just before leaving Los Angeles to Australia for my RTW trip. I hiked Runyon Canyon with my friend Lisandra to say goodbye to the Hollywood Sign (in the far background)..

I left just five months later, in November of 2008, with a conservative sum of money I gained from: selling my belongings, my modest savings, and extra work I crammed in the last couple months. To fund the full year of travel I had planned, I knew I needed to bill about 25 hours a week on average for most of the trip, and slightly more than that once I arrived in Europe, where the cost of living is higher than in Asia.

Working Remotely in a Recession

For those who were working at the time, you know what happened in 2008. I had somehow timed my departure to the start of the 2008 recession. Obama was elected the day I boarded my flight. And in the coming years I would see remote based work and travel as the sole reason that I am financially secure now, more than 11 years later. Working remotely abroad allowed me to dramatically cut my expenses, so I was spending far less money in during the recession than I would have if I had been living in LA.

Since that time, I have continued many of the same jobs (still doing SEO, online marketing/SEO consulting, freelance writing, and this blog), while also diversifying my work and income (I have a volunteer site in the works and a book publishing later this fall . . . more on that soon!). Through it all though, I have always and will continue to work remotely, from my laptop, for the foreseeable future. I now live in Barcelona, a city with an affordable cost of living that still allows me a nice remote work lifestyle.

Back to the Present: Living Abroad as a Working Expat

From my background and experience, I have given career advice in countless emails to steer people into working remotely. And in some responses I noted that you could find work abroad, but I never really understood all that it can mean to live as an integrated expat until I lived with Anna Jura for a week.

I am not fond of “real” jobs—ie. office jobs with bosses and clocking in, but that’s just me.

Some people thrive under the structure and work 9 to 5 on projects they love. This is not a novel concept to most of my friends, who love their homes, love having evenings off, and love a structure giving them weekends free of work concerns.

But maybe I finally get it. Anna and her roommate both clock into “real” jobs each day.

By choice.

Given the option to switch jobs with me, they’d choose their job.

Sunset phnom penh palace
Sunset over the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia from one of the walks Anna took us on around the city

Every expat I met through Anna while in Phnom Penh was highly educated, most were specializing in development work of some sort, though some in marketing, or business, and all were content with their work and life as an expat in Cambodia. 

In the past, I’ve met disgruntled expats, those frustrated or with their jobs and ready to take the money they earned working abroad, do a last hurrah of travel until it ran out, and then move home. But the community I met in Phnom Penh changed my perception; these people found a place for their specializations, for their college degrees. Beyond that, the prospect of living and working in this particular foreign city excited them. Their work is not a means to an end as it often is for those teaching English abroad or some such (the end usually being traveling). These are jobs for the love of working in a subject field, and, ultimately, professional work satisfaction.

So much of the travel community is “rah, rah travel, rah, rah save up and take a massive trip . . . or work remotely and travel perpetually.”  That’s just one option. There are also opportunities abroad for those with wanderlust and a wish to have a home-base, set-up shop, live, raise a family, and truly enjoy life as an expat abroad.

Small Thatched Cottage, Ireland
The thought of living in this thatched cottage, cozying up with a daily up of tea, finding new friends and settling into a new rhythm makes Ireland’s rural Western coast appeals to me if I ever want to go off the grid as an expat :)

That’s my new advice. Try on your University degree and see if it fits abroad. Or try consulting and build an online business. Or save up a chunk of money, travel, and return to home-base. My point is, I heartily support travel and think anyone with the opportunity and inclination should take it . . . and think outside the advice anyone might give you and follow your own path to that end.  :)

How to Find Work Overseas

How to Find Work Overseas (And How I've Work Remotely for 13+ Years) — Extensive tips and firsthand advice for #digitalnomads

I’ve never worked for a traditional company abroad, but I have many friends who have. This page on A Little Adrift does a very deep, thorough dive into how to find specialized expat work from people who have done it. If you’re looking to work online, I recommend that you start here with your research as it covers every step from deciding what work is good for your skills, to finding work, to how to travel as a digital nomad if you choose remote-based work.

How to Work and Travel as a Freelancer or Digital Nomad

If you’re interested in moving overseas, that job hunt is a different process. These resources will give you a better idea of where to find overseas jobs, as well as how others have done it before you.

International Organizations & Databases

  • Escape the City: A London-based company that has a weekly newsletter you should sign up to have the best-of-the-best job recs that the week. It has some great resources if you are looking to change careers, or just find new work in your same field—just from a more interesting location!
  • Cool Works: The site’s tagline is “Jobs in Great Places” and there are a lot of sorting options—seems like a good place to peruse. The site specializes in seasonal and shorter-term jobs all over the world. (And if you’re looking at seasonal work, you can learn more about it at Job Monkey).
  • ReliefWeb: Start here for many development jobs all over the world—it’s easy to search and full of opportunities in many fields.
  • InterNations: A huge global community. I haven’t participated, but I know they host events and have active forums.
  • Modern-Day Nomads: This has a range of both remote-based jobs as well as location-based adventurous job opportunities in interesting places.
  • The Working Traveller: You’ll find more seasonal work here listed in their JobSpy category that is updated regularly for opportunities all over the world.
  • Go Workabout: Seasonal jobs for foreigners in Australia; it’s a great database. This is especially handy if you’re considering applying for the fairly-easy-to-secure one-year Work Holiday Visa for those under 31 years old.

Information Sites

  • Expat Focus: A good starting point, you will find yourself lost in this site for hours as you start plotting and planning a move. Though there is a free membership part to some of it, you can search through country information without logging in.
  • Expat Finder: A full service site that has information on every part of the move.
  • Expat Exchange: A robust site with information on a wide range of countries.
  • Expatica: Nice all-around resource for every side of the process, it has job boards, community forums, tips articles, and is a well-trafficked site and it looks like there is pretty dynamic content!
  • Four Ways to Become an Expat: A few paths you can look at for finding jobs and a type of work that will take you overseas.
  • Transitions Abroad: Dense with information; I didn’t like that they don’t link out to other job boards and that such, but has a range of possible topics covered.

Additional Resources for How to Work as an Expat

  • The End of Jobs: An essential book for anyone who wants to work as an expat or digital nomad; speaking to why MBAs and JDs can’t get jobs, research on integrated living, and more.
  • Big Magic: You don’t have to be a fan of Eat Pray Love to enjoy this book. An inspiring read about creativity that is helpful to expats, digital nomads, and bloggers.
  • Four Hour Work Week: No doubt you’ve seen it for years, but if you haven’t read it yet, you should. Some of Tim Ferris’ viewpoints are very counter to how I live my life, but I will give him this: his book changed my perception about what is possible in building an online business. It’s still a primer read for a reason, it’s worth having that knowledge and perspective in your head as you move forward.
  • The 80/20 Principle: A good companion to the Four Hour Work Week, this book talks about how 20% of your efforts will generate 80% of your results. As an expat or digital nomad working smarter, not harder, is key and this book provides a good base.

If there is ever anything that I can do to help, please do reach out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and let’s talk about how we can make your travel dream a reality.

Railay-Beach-Thailand Longboats

A Little Reflection … To 2012, and the Case for Making No Plans

Who can really know what a year will bring? If you had told me last year at this time, as I was packing my bags back in 2011 to move to Chiang Mai the first time around, that I would start 2012 with an 11-year-old in tow and once again in this same city, I would have raised an eyebrow at the very least, and most likely let out an unladylike guffaw. I just didn’t see it happening in my fit of random pre-travel euphoria a year ago.

Last January, I wrote about abandoning plans and embracing whatever life threw in my direction in fact, I exactly wrote:

“I also have no attachment to a plan this time around.”

Perhaps I tempted the universe with this. I put myself out there as open and willing to see what new came my way, and truly some new paths opened before me.

railay beach longboats thailand
The longboats and aqua waters of Railay Beach in the Thai islands

This time last year, I moved to Thailand to hang out with the ever-so-lovely Jodi for a couple of months in a pretty, low-key city. That downtime included an unexpected whirlwind trip/visa-run to Malaysia with a new friend, Paddy, then she dragged me along with her to the Thai islands for a couple of weeks of sun (which I strongly avoid on my own accord, but I admit were fun weeks once I went and enjoyed). And a year later, although Paddy now lives in the islands, she flew up to spend Christmas in Chiang Mai and was one of the first expats to bond with Ana here–that’s Paddy’s smiling face you saw last week in our 10K Christmas Marathon run!

Funny how things come around full circle in even the smallest ways. :)

Rural rice paddies outside of Yangshuo, China.
Biking through the rural rice paddies outside of Yangshuo, China.

Fast forward a bit, and my close friends from back home traveled this way (and by “this way,” I mean Asia). We met up for a quick two weeks in China (not nearly enough time to really see China), but it was pretty great to have friends I’ve known since my high school days come travel with me…in fact, it was a highlight of the year because it completely changed the dynamics in such a neat way.  :)

dead sea jordan
The mountains around the Dead Sea in Jordan

By late spring, I was packing my bags again for an unexpected and wholly unplanned, but beautiful, 10 days in Jordan with the Jordan Tourism Board. The days spent eating and simply experiencing rather than handling all the planning details easily made Jordan one of my most memorable countries.

In the background though, at this point, a new plan was forming that would shape the rest of my 2011; around Easter my family and I began plotting how we could use my current travel/internet-work lifestyle to empower my niece and send her on a journey of her own. Because I am a mad puppet master (and because everything was tentative) I kept this under wraps while we figured out the logistics and I returned to Florida for my annual break spent back home–which is essentially my long-term plan for travel, some months back home, some time on the road…and a bit of life and otherness between.

Key Lime Pie down south in Key West, Florida
An obligatory food photo, I tucked into this huge slice of tart key lime pie at Blue Heaven in Key West, Florida

Speaking of logistics though, it turns out there is a lot to figure out when you take a child who isn’t actually yours outside the country! I spent the summer in Florida visiting with friends and engaged in some furious hand-wringing as I gathered up documents, applied for my niece’s passport, found vaccines, and shoved my head full of everything I thought I might need to school Ana here in Thailand (far more freaking out and hand-wringing than was necessary now that we’re here, honestly, but there was no convincing me of that back then!).

We left, and let me assure you, that transition month last November is one of those things I never saw coming. November was the adjustment period and there were days I thought this travel homeschooling plan was an utter failure (this is where I learned to sing myself the mantra “she’s a child, she is still just a child” — a phrase many parents of preteens have used before me…). But I grew up, and Ana grew (perhaps not up, but grow she did). And we hit our groove over the past six weeks; I figured out the projects, tasks, and things I need to do to keep Ana actively interested in our traveling plans, and she’s become more enthused and excited about the people we meet and places we visit.

weaving in Laos
Ana enjoys a hands-on weaving class in Luang Prabang, Laos (more on that soon!)

It’s January once again, and although I have this niggling weariness about what’s in store (admit it, most of us are worrying about something!), I know 2012 will have its way with me (the hussy) no matter what I actually “plan.” Instead, I once again welcome the New Year with a blank slate because you know, the surprises given to me in 2011 have all worked out pretty well this far, though some threw me for a loop once or twice!

Also of note though, is the business side of things. I have several volunteer projects I hope come to fruition this year (you’ll be hearing more about that soon!). Many have been in development in the past weeks and months, but out of some internal fears I’ve kept them fairly secret. So, soon they will launch.

Though my closet type-A personality gets anxious sometimes, all this time in Buddhist countries this year is wearing off on me. I can’t possibly know what is in store for me, so the anxiety, planning, and fear does no good. Instead, I eagerly open my arms to what awaits. In the past I was a planner—I spent several years creating poster-sized vision boards with my full-year goals. Other times I wrote out epic lists of resolutions and five-year-plans. And I even spent time in morose futility once or twice.

Like last year though, I will quote Joseph Campbell, because unlike any guru’s message I’ve jived with in my various fits of fancy, I truly believe if we’re doing something right now that brings us happiness, then we’re heading in our own “right” directions.

Follow your bliss. If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

If you’ve made it this far in the post, I’d love to know what do you think of Campbell’s message, and do you find it true in your own life as you begin 2012? 

A Little Chiang Mai Living…Routine is It’s Own Adventure

A routine forms when you hunker down in one place, when you pick a spot and decide “hey, I’m going to live here; not just travel through, but live here.” Is it safe to admit I thought the routine and normalcy would still elude me? Coming to Chiang Mai was the next leg in my wanderings; I didn’t realize that the entire pace of my life would slow back down into a routine.

I’ve been in near constant motion for more than two years; my months home this fall were a break of sorts, but even then I was busy bouncing between busy state capitals, countless couches, guest bedrooms, and even a floor or two as I visited friends and family around the U.S.

I was still on the roller coaster adventure of perpetual travel.

A monk at the Silver Temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand takes the offerings off of Ganesh for the evening.
A monk's daily routine at the Silver Temple: taking the offerings off of Ganesh each evening

Now I’m here, living in Chiang Mai, and it’s so very normal.

I have a home. A really cute one too. I have an address and rent, my trusty backpack is shoved deep in the corner of my room from lack of use and the street vendors near my house smile and wave out of familiarity.

I have a routine.

Curious emails have begun to flit into my inbox:

What do I do here every day? Why Chiang Mai? Is it what I expected?

This is the first time I’ve stopped and actually lived somewhere outside of the US.

And I like it, a lot. There’s a community here in Chiang Mai; friends, food, and decent wifi are the constants.

Veggie street food lady in Chiang Mai, Thailand
My favorite vegetarian street food vendor – no MSG and always served with a big smile!

And yet it’s not what I expected entirely either. The normalcy makes it easy to  float through days in a routine without paying close attention to what’s happening…and then sometimes very little actually happens. Sadly that has included work; I get distracted by the food, people, and culture maybe even more regularly than I did on the road. Now that wifi and work aren’t challenging (easy connections, tons of time on my hands) less seems to get done.

But then again, that’s partly why I came here, just to see what it’s like to live somewhere else. So I can report back to you now, people over here live in routines too.

I’ll appease those wondering souls concerned about what it’s like to live here in Chiang Mai. It looks something like this…

A day in Shannonland, Chiang Mai Edition:

4:30a – The smell of frying garlic from the restaurant next door suffuses the room and I dream of food.
6:30a – Wake up! The sun’s up, the birds outside compete in a loud and aggressive morning chirping contest and I’m hungry enough to eat an entire garden (don’t feel like the “hungry enough to eat a horse” analogy fits?!).
8a -12:00p – Ponder the Thai National Anthem as it blares through the street speakers around town at 8am every day…then work. The internet is only good in the morning at our house, so it’s a Western breakfast of yogurt, fresh fruit, and work.
12:00p – Scoot over to the veggie lady’s buffet nearby for a spicy lunch with an assortment of tasty and convincing fake meats; their complete mastery of seitan here in Thailand is, in a word, delicious.
1p-6:00p – Thank the heavens for the 99baht ($3) coffee and wifi buffet – a few afternoons each week I buffet it up for hours and hours.
6:30p – Team Chiang Mai (all the expats in town) meet for dinner a nearby night market so we can all find our favorite foods (that way the rest of the team isn’t forced to eat at veggie restaurants all the time). Then it’s a free-for-all for the rest of the evening…sometimes a local festival, other days just chatter over drinks.

Blissfully normal, right?!

I came here for the ability to hunker down and maintain a work schedule while still abroad and in a different culture. And I’m welcoming a routine and framework for my life. I like it. And I love the smiles of recognition and genuine warmth from the locals I encounter on a daily basis.

Delicious steam squash and taro sit on a street cart in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Sweet desserts at the Chiang Mai Gate Night Market.

So, why Thailand for this first foray into expat-ism?

Because establishing a mini-life and routine here in Chiang Mai is an adventure of its own and I wanted to see if I like it. My roomie and I navigate the street food stalls with expertise – we cobble together a mish-mashed dinner from our favorite street food vendors. An ear of corn from the grinning lady at the edge of the night market, a wave to the man selling chopped fruit.

The nods of acknowledgment and smiles makes it a bit like the Cheers sentiment. I like it here because “everyone knows my face” (not so much my name, I’ll admit, we haven’t gotten that far yet ;-).

Motorbiking with my roomie around town is the norm in Chiang Mai, Thailand
My roomie and I zip all over town on our scooters :)

Everyone here is living their lives too, they have their routine and for the first time in a long time I’m slipping into a routine with those around me, fitting my life into my surroundings, and the familiarity of food I know, a constant culture (less chance of embarrassing snafus like my roomie’s recent “May I fart?” debacle).

This venture into a more sedentary nomadism is, well, progressing. I can’t yet decide if I’ll pick back up traveling or move to another place…who knows?! Still figuring that out.

Any burning questions for me? The next post in the series I’ll share the costs of living here in Chiang Mai, arguably one of the more appealing reasons I moved her too!

A Little Advice… Handling Money for Travel: Credit, Debit, & Cash

best rtw travel Credit cards

Handling money on the road is an important practicality for any international traveler. Let’s specifically discuss the best credit and debit cards for travel, with a note at the end about when and how to handle your cash (important since many developing countries are cash-based economies).

Although every traveler can benefit from the right card, long-term travelers and expats especially benefit from using cards that eliminate any and all foreign transaction fees. Together, my debit and credit cards and I have been through the good (no withdrawal fees), the bad (two percent transaction fees), and the ugly (whaddaya mean withdrawals and transactions are blocked in Slovenia… I’m in Slovenia right now). After more than ten years traveling, finding seamless banking solutions for international travel has made a huge positive impact on my travels. 

In this post, we’re going to talk all things money on the road. That means what you should know about debit/bank cards, the best credit cards in general, and the best travel rewards credit cards (those cards offering miles or points you can exchange for flights, hotels, etc.).

Laos foreign money kip
This was the stack of Laotian Kip needed to bribe my way up the river so I could get to a Thai hospital. Good thing I had safety cash on me!

Five Considerations for Travel Credit & Debit Cards

  1. Transaction Fees: Many credit card companies tack on a 1% to 3% foreign transaction fee to the total price of what you buy. For long-term travelers, this is a clear no-go. Luckily, you have options to circumvent these fees if you research ahead of time. You must find out the percentage for foreign transactions made on your current cards. That means read the fine print—cards designed for use in the U.S. may charge you several percentage points to use the card internationally. Check your credit cards, but your debit card, too. Since you can use debit cards as credit cards (swiped rather than used to withdrawal cash at an ATM), you need to check that fine print as well. Jot these notes down in a spreadsheet or notebook so you can compare options.
  2. Withdrawal Fees: Many banks charge a flat fee every time you use an international ATM. Ask before you leave. Many international banks also charge a withdrawal fee, so you might get hit twice if your bank card charges a withdrawal fee! Only by researching your current bank cards fees can you determine if you should shop around for a travel-friendly bank account. Also look into if your bank has international branches in your destination city where you could use the local branch to avoid fees.
  3. Are any countries blocked?: Believe it or not, you might not be able to withdraw any cash in some countries. Back in 2008, my local credit union blocked all transactions from Thailand and Slovenia—my small bank had designated them as locations “highly likely for fraudulent activity.” Now that I use a different bank for primary debit accounts, this is no longer an issue. If you’re also using a local credit union, talk with them in person about your planned trip. And consider carrying two separate bank cards to circumvent any issues.
  4. Online Banking: Can you access your account balance abroad, and even more, can you handle issues from overseas.? Some banks demand your personal presence to replace a lost card; other times banks only ship to the address on file. Basically, you want a bank that can handle remote support in case you need assistance from abroad—this particularly important for long term travelers. Nowadays, most banks also offer a handy app you can use from your smartphone, which is ideal since logging in from random browsers and computers all over the globe is not safe.  
  5. Carry different brands: Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted cards and you need to carry one of each type of card. As strange as it sounds, some countries primarily accept just one of the two brands.

Is There Really a Best Debit Card for Travel?

A resounding yes! Most banks either charge foreign withdrawal fees every time you use your debit card at an ATM outside of your home country, or fees for withdrawals outside of your banking network. Either way, those fees add up—if you’re on the road for a month and modestly withdraw money twice a week, you’ve blown $20 just on bank fees. Then, stack on top of your bank’s fee the fact that all overseas banks also charge a withdrawal as high as six dollars in many cases, and you are looking at $70 in banking fees—all money that is much better spent on your trip.

Schwab Checking: The Best Bank for Travelers

Charles Schwab travel debit card review

Charles Schwab is an online-based bank with unparalleled advantages for travelers—even after nine years since I signed up for my Schwab checking account, I have yet to hear of any other U.S. bank that even comes close to offering the range of free services Schwab offers travelers..

The Good:

  • no foreign transaction fees
  • no ATM withdrawal fees
  • reimburses withdrawal fees charged by any other bank
  • never requires appearance at a bank branch to access services
  • telephone customer service is a cinch, and email responses questions are prompt

The Bad: 

  • there’s no bank branch where you can sit across from a human and demand answers (since nothing has ever gone wrong, I’ve never missed this)
  • transferring funds around between accounts outside Schwab is not seamless (though customer service goes out of their to help ease the process)  

How to Avoid Paying Bank Fees When Traveling

When I left on my world travels, the U.S. had just entered the 2008 recession and I was moderately content with the $1 foreign withdrawal fee tacked onto ATM withdrawals from my local credit union checking account. Fast forward nine months. As the recession hit hard, my credit union upped the fee to $2.50 per withdrawal. That hit my travel budget harder.

Once I returned Stateside, I switched to Schwab. Across nine years and 50+ countries, Schwab has lived up to its fee-less withdrawal promise. At the end of every month, Schwab reimburses my account for any withdrawal fees charged by another bank. Considering Spanish and Thai banks charge $5+ per withdrawal, I love seeing a credit of $20+ bank into my account each month. This single feature is a huge asset for any travelers, but long-term travelers specifically. You can’t afford to not bank with Schwab—to my knowledge, no other U.S. bank offers this feature.

A few other options recommended by other travelers:

  • ING Direct: Read through the comments below—other people have raved about the ease of money transfers and service with ING.
  • Capital One Direct Banking: This option also comes highly recommended in the comments for its easy online interface and lack of transaction fees.
  • Caxton FX Global Traveller: This prepaid MasterCard has a diehard contingent of fans among some long-term world travelers.

Tip: In addition to ensuring my bank and credit cards cover these main areas, my father is also to my bank accounts in case surprising issues crop up (and they have over the years). If you have a trusted family member or friend, consider allowing them to work on your behalf, if necessary. It takes good faith, because my dad has fully authority on my account, but if you have someone you absolutely trust, it’s really handy, at times, to have them on your local accounts.

Travel Rewards Credit Cards—Necessary or Folly?

Sinking into deep debt for travel is not likely a great choice for most of us. Although I had debt when I left to travel, I actually spent less on world travel than I had living in Los Angeles and paid off my debt a few years into my long-term travels. Afterwards, I was leery of credit cards—they fall into dangerous territory if you’ve ever abused them in the past (I had).

That said, things happen and it’s wise to travel with a credit card. They come in handy and should anything happen to your bank account (like no bank withdrawals in Slovenia!), and it’s the preferred way to secure a rental car. I use my travel credit cards for things where cash won’t work (flights), and when I don’t want to swipe/risk my bank card (I rented a car in South Africa and was so glad that I used it instead of my bank card since they overcharged me and it took months to resolve!).

Then there is the subject of travel hacking—if you’re prepared to invest some time in seeking out good deals, you can amass a decent stash of airline miles or points before you even leave on your trip. You can then exchange those points can for flights, accommodation, rental cars, and more. Let’s assume you’re game for a travel rewards credit card—here are the best ones depending on your personal situation.

Travel Hacking: A Quick Overview

If you’re new to the idea of travel hacking, it boils down to this: You earn reward miles or points that you can then exchange for free travel. The majority of this activity centers on the U.S. market, where U.S. credit card companies offer deals and incentives for those willing to use credit cards and generally chase down special offers.

I am not an expert travel hacker by any stretch of the imagination—that Chase Reserve is my sole gambit into that world. As such, I won’t get into specific tips and advice of how to travel hack. I will just note that even if you approach it lightly, it can be an effective way to offset a few travel expenses.

If you have a long timeline before you leave on your world travels, look into the travel rewards cards so you can accumulate points throughout your daily life as you plan and save for your trip. Even with just a light amount of travel hacking, it’s easy to offset at least a few plane flights or hotel nights. From just eight months of use on my first travel rewards card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card, I bought a $1,200 flight to Africa. That’s not an insignificant sum! And that was light travel hacking (Matt gets into what more serious travel hacking looks like). The Chase Sapphire Rewards cards are a truly great deal and have many devotees in the travel hacking crowd, not just me.

To really learn this subject, head to the authorities on this topic:

Chase Sapphire Reserve: My Concession to Travel Hacking

Chase Sapphire Preferred

My first entry into the world of travel hacking happened in the summer of 2013, when I opened a Chase Sapphire Prefered account as a way to earn enough miles to pay for my flights to Africa. The card had a 40,000 point signup bonus, attractive ways to earn extra miles, and great international policies on rental car coverage and things of that nature. In 2018, I switched to the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which is even better—it offers priority lounge access, triple points on travel, and more. Both cards carry annual fees, however. This turned the right option for me, but read on to decide if you’re better off going with a non-rewards travel card, which has no fees and could be better for a round the world trip, or if you’re still paying off your debt.

The Good:

  • Chase travel cards offer no foreign transaction fees tacked onto international purchases.
  • You earn either 40,000 and 50,000 bonus miles if you meet the spending requirement in the first three months—after that, the cards offer either two or three times the points on travel, depending on the card.
  • The international customer support is top notch.
  • You have full online account access and slick, intuitive interface.

The Bad:

  • The Sapphire cards carry an annual fee, so it’s best if you truly are playing the game of using the card to earn miles, otherwise you can receive many similar travel transaction fee the benefits on cards without annual fees.
  • Rewards cards—most truly great travel and airline miles credit card—carry higher fees all around. If you’re prone to carrying a balance on your card, go with a credit card with lower fees.

Capital One travel credit card review

Another option I have used in the past is Capital One. CapOne is a frequent traveler choice because it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. I carried this card until 2013. I hated the company’s customer service, but I couldn’t fault its offerings. For travelers looking for many of the great benefits of a travel rewards card, but without the annual fee, then look at Capital One VentureOne. Capital One has consistently been the one North American credit card that never charges international transaction fees. I carried my CapOne card throughout all 15 countries on my world trip itinerary and it worked in every single place. It doesn’t have any annual fees, so it could be a good option.

Now that I pay a hefty annual fee for my Chase Reserve card ($550 with a $300 refundable annual travel credit), I use that card exclusively to amass points there that buy my flights home to Florida see my family now that I am based in Barcelona.

Selecting the Right Credit Card for Your Needs

I carry my Chase Reserve credit card in my arsenal because it lacks international transaction fees, it offers me lounge access at airports all over the world, and I earn three times the points on all travel dollars charged. The Preferred and Reserve are two of the bested rated travel points credit cards on the market.

If you’re shopping for an airline miles card, look at the Gold Delta SkyMiles by American Express. And for hotels cards, the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card is a Chase Visa card and is a good bet. Note, however, American Express is not widely accepted internationally, but it’s a great way to earn miles if you’re traveling in the U.S., or if you’re several years out from your long-term travels.

Best Credit & Debit Cards for Europe

Contactless payment is huge across all of Europe and the UK and you will feel like a Luddite without credit and debit cards with chips that allow for “tap and pay” features. There’s a good hack though, which turns all of your U.S. cards into European-friendly debit and credit cards.

Add your primary rewards card to your Apple Wallet—then it’s easy to tap and and pay and earn points. Since U.S. cards are not equipped with WiFi like European cards, by using Apple Pay you can seamlessly navigate the tap-and-go world on your European travels. There are days here in my home of Barcelona that I only leave with my iPhone since 95% of the locations accept Apple Pay.

In terms of fees—all of my above recommendations stand as the best options for Europe—and the rest of the world too! Because these cards don’t charge withdrawal fees, you don’t need to worry about finding a partner bank while traveling.

when to carry cash while traveling

Cash: When and How to Carry it Safely

Many developing countries operate on cash economies. Although credit cards are essential in a pinch and work for booking flights, you will spend most of your money in cash when traveling throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, Central America, Central Asia, and many other locations. It’s this cash-based factor that makes it so important for travelers to use banks that do not charge withdrawal fees.

This cash factor also means there are times you are carrying a lot of money in your pocket, purse, or money belt! It used to wig me out to have several hundred dollars on my person, but now I accept it as a part of the travel experience. That doesn’t mean I’m going to make myself an easy target though! Here are some ideas about when, why, and how to safely use and carry your cash while traveling.

  • Carry a safety $100 dollars in USD. Although you could use Euros or pounds, the USD is a strong secondary currency in many locations. When I traveled with my niece, I carried $175 dollars as our “just in case” fund, and I always stored it in a different spot than my credit and debit cards. This cash works in a variety of circumstances: If the local ATM is broken, if you need to bribe your way out of a situation, if you’re injured and need to pay for immediate assistance, if your primary wallet is stolen, etc. I mention these because every one of those situations has happened to me over the past decade of travel.
  • Withdraw a four to seven days worth of local currency at a time. You want enough cash to get you through the next few days, but not enough that you’re out of money if you’re robbed. By withdrawing a few days at a time, you ensure that a broken ATM or an unexpected emergency is easily handled.
  • Do not exchange money—withdraw from an ATM. When you arrive at the airport, steer far clear of the exchange booths and instead hit up the ATM. I use the currency app so that I always know the local exchange rate, or you can usually be certain that the bottom right withdrawal option is for an amount between $80 and $200.
  • Keep cash in multiple spots. Consider keeping cash in at least two spots. And if you are traveling as a couple, split credit cards and cash between you both. I always shove two twenties somewhere in a hidden luggage compartment, or I will put it in a bag with dirty socks and underwear if I am in a very sketchy hotel situation. Another tactic is to carry a muggers wallet with a day’s worth of cash. My primary wallet is often in my purse, but I also carry a daily wallet (usually a small zip pouch) with charge and a wad of small local currency I can use at markets. If you’re mugged, you would hand over this wallet and leave your main wallet or money belt hidden unless things were to escalate. Several travel friends have successfully used this tactic when mugged in South America.

That about wraps up every money recommendation from my ten years on the road. Between these three areas—debit cards, credit cards, and cash—there is no financial situation you can’t handle on the road. If you have a favorite tip—be it for a favored card or a safety tip, let me know in the comments below! And use our other resources if you’re planning your world travels and want insider tips on finding great flights, accommodation, travel insurance, and more.

Disclosure: I have no degree in finance and there are no guarantees if you take my advice on using these companies. This is a personal, friendly recommendation from a fellow traveler; no more and no less. Oh, and no one paid me to recommend these cards—every recommendation comes from personal experience and reader feedback and I personally have all of these recommended cards in my wallet. :)

A Little Twist…Turning Tail & Traveling to Thailand

The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
`To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.’

Tree over Pushkar

This fragment of a Lewis Carroll poem wandered into my wayward thoughts as I sat down to write tonight;  I often quote these lines to my niece and nephew when they spout nonsense…

…but worry not, I’ll keep away from nonsense and instead note that my travel plans, like the winds of the world, have changed direction.

Several months ago I was giddy at the thought of heading to the Middle East and traveling through Syria, Israel, and Turkey with a couple of fellow travel bloggers – we hatched the plan over beers but all were serious about seeing if we could make it work. Although I have been talking about settling in somewhere since last March, it didn’t take much convincing to forgo that notion for new travel plans.

And then plans changed, and I find myself confounded by the fact that the very first plan I hatched up during my sad travel fatigue session in Guatemala last April is finally coming to fruition.

The New Travel Plan

My plane sets sail for Thailand in mid-January (mixed metaphor, I know) and I am pleased as punch with this development.

Actually, I’m content, excited, and enthused in a way I haven’t been in ages.

Thailand was the very first location that floated into my consciousness when I dreamed about an ideal location to both relax and work.

I instantly connected with the promise of a vibrant expat community and delicious (cheap) Thai food.

Curbside Balinese offering

And then for some reason I went to Bali instead.

Don’t get me wrong, Bali’s character, culture and charisma stunned me. The smiling locals, the fragrant frangipani wafting up from the dozens of nearby offerings – all experiences and memories were measured and logged, recorded and remembered.

I enjoyed Bali.

I will go back to Bali one day for a bit longer than the mere two weeks I spent this past fall.

But Southeast Asia is alluring in a way I simply can’t name or number…

So why all of these sudden changes?

I am constantly amazed by my ability to embrace rapid change and planlessness in a way that is so not a pre-travel Shannon character trait. I still battle twinges of doubt and resistance every time a new idea pushes forward and an old one is abandoned, but split second decisions and the unpredictable nature of perpetual motion altered me at a core level. As long as I have the promise of an internet connection, sure, why not, let’s go!

I chalk this change up to an inherent attachment to certainty that we all crave, and conversely don’t crave at the same time. I want a plan. I want a bit of consistency. And yet I thrive on last minute decisions and the adrenaline rush that comes from rapid travel adjustments and a general “unknown” lying endlessly in front of me.

Another way to say all of this: I don’t know what the heck I’m doing with myself half of the time!

I follow whims, so when I announce new “plans,” I use the term “plan” pretty loosely :-)

So now I get the certainty of settling in Thailand with the uncertainty of making and breaking that decision for the past eight months.

It’s to Thailand with me on January 14th for near certainty (the plane ticket has been purchased!). And as much as any plan of mine actually forms fully into fruition, I am setting my sites on Chiang Mai for the next five months-ish.

Religious Statue in Luang Prabang

And in my Asian daydreams I am most looking forward to:

Mangosteen and rambutan – two delicious Asian fruits that will make up the cornerstone of my breakfasts.

Fragrant foods in plenitude from chatty street vendors.

Community and friends already living in the region as expats.

Culture and temples; I’ve been away from Asia too long, since I’m far from being “templed out.”

Hikes, mountains, tigers, animals, adventure.

People and places, new sites and smells.

Simply put, I’m excited.

Are you also in Thailand? Going to be in Thailand? Love Thailand? Have a great “that one time in Thailand story?” Do share!  :-)

should you move to Bali?

A Little Expat Living… Cost of Living in Bali, Indonesia (2020)

cost of living in bali, indonesia

Moving to Bali is the stuff of travel dreams. The Indonesian island has a reputation for its gorgeous setting, delicious food, and fascinating Hindu culture. Popular culture has done a wonderful job selling the island’s most idyllic aspects, but there’s a bit more to Bali than simply an island paradise. While many expats have chosen Bali has their long-term homebase—mostly because of the cost of living and quality of life—others visit and then prefer to keep Bali as the stuff of vacations: sunny, warm, and fascinating, but not a good lifestyle fit. Where might your own plans fit into the mix? It really depends on what you are hoping for when you look at moving to Bali.

Generally, there is a mix of lifestyles for the expats in Bali. The costs of living in various parts of the island plays a big role in why expats choose to move to a certain city. There are touristy areas that are completely overrun with a partying backpacker vibe. But there are other areas where expats can live smack dab in the middle of a rice paddy, within a short bike ride to the center of town. The lifestyles vary hugely, but as of late 2020, it’s a fast-growing spot for expats looking for a nice quality of life for a low cost of living.

(Keen to access this information offline? Buy this as a handy and helpful downloadable PDF for $2.)

Why Move to Bali?

should you move to bali?

On my own stint in Bali, it all played out a bit differently than I had planned, and I left Bali far sooner than I anticipated. It happened for a range of reasons. I had planned to move to Bali for six months. Once I arrived, however, a confluence of events led me to choose a different path. Many readers have emailed me wondering how I could have possibly been willing to give up living in Bali? The short answer is that I got a job with a nonprofit that wanted me to jumpstart their community initiatives in the U.S. This is reason enough to have packed up and headed back to the states. It’s not the only reason, however. The bigger question for digital nomads, expats, and those working online is this: Is Bali a good spot to run a remote business, a blog, or any sort of location independent lifestyle?

A decade ago, the answer was a resounding “no.” The internet infrastructure was just too slow and power outages during rainy season were cumbersome if you needed to make an online meeting. Now, however, that has changed and internet in Bali in 2020 is different. Ubud boasts coworking spaces and a growing digital nomad community. It still has a more basic infrastructure than places like Chiang Mai, Thailand (which is hugely popular with expats and digital nomads). We’ll get into that a bit more in the quality of life section, but suffice to say that it’s still only moderately ideal for expats hoping to run a business online.

But there are a ton of other reasons to move to Bali, and if you’re not a digital nomad or entrepreneur, you might just love calling this tiny island home. I am often asked: “Should you move to Bali?” This spot is unique to other places in Southeast Asia and there are a good number of digital nomads, entrepreneurs, yoga enthusiasts, and families who happily call Bali home.

Cost of Living in Bali: $650 to $1,700

Expect to spend $650 to $1,700 per month for a single person living in Bali—families and couples sharing rental costs will save a bit. And it’s possible to spend significantly more on a higher lifestyle.

Average Monthly ExpensesCosts
Rent $300 – $1,100
Transportation (motorbike rental + fuel) $60
Food $300 – $550
 Activities (yoga, massages, diving, etc)$75 – $150
Total$650 to $1,700

Fast Facts About Living in Bali

Currency: Indonesian Rupiah; pegged roughly 1 : 14,000 with the US dollar (IDR rate here)

Expat Scene: Bali is the playground for Australians since the flights are so cheap. There is also a solid expat scene of both short-term expats (3-6 months) and those living full-time on the island. Ubud has a growing startup scene and as of 2016 was vying with Thailand and Vietnam for this crowd of expats. By and large, Bali is popular with Aussie spring-break backpackers and those in their 30s. The island has a very different vibe from the scene in the Thai islands, and although there is a budget-conscious new-age crowd in Ubud, much of Bali’s expat scene caters to those in on comfortably middle class budgets. Those living on the low-end of the cost of living range are generally short-term expats—in Bali, you pay for the creature comforts that most expats prefer in a homebase.

Average Local Salary: The minimum wage salary for a local in Bali is about $140 per month; those in high paying jobs bring home around $500 per month.

Visas: The most common visa for Bali is a paid tourist visa ($35), which lasts for 30 days and you can pay to extend it to 60 days. At the 60-day limit, you must leave and re-enter. This usually works for short-term expats. Long-term expats often opt for the the social-cultural (sosial-budaya) visa, which lasts for 60 days and can be extended for 30 days up to four times. Retirees will likely qualify for a residence visa, but this is very hard for non-retirees to secure.

Child Friendliness: Similar to other places in Southeast Asia, Bali is very child-friendly. There is a large family expat scene, and as such there are several great international schools. You can expect to pay dearly for some, however, so you’ll need to do your research. Prices for school range from 3K annually to as high as 20K per year.

Internet: High speed internet is not widespread throughout Bali. Although you can find internet in every corner of the island, Ubud is your best-bet for a solid, reliable connection. Smaller towns and the beach communities have internet access, but it can vary wildly. Expats in rural areas often rely on satellite internet.

Safety: Relatively safe. Motorbikes are the preferred style of travel; while this is convenient, it is also dangerous. The “Bali Kiss” is the name given to the muffler burn and road-rash on the bodies of travelers who don’t understand how to properly use a motorbike. Motorcycle accidents are common; it’s advisable to carry an expat insurance policy that covers such accidents.

Possible Issues: Burglaries of expat villas is possible since most villas do not lock securely. You will either pay for better/secure accommodation, or opt for security guards. I also highly recommend gear insurance—I carry Clements insurance for my laptop and high end camera. Many beaches have riptides and few lifeguards; use your own ocean safety knowledge to avoid problems. The weak medical infrastructure is a also concern for many retirees.

Water: Tap water is not drinkable. When you live there, you will buy reusable jugs of water. If you’re visiting on a reconnaissance trip, consider a SteriPen or LifeStraw.

Pet Friendliness: Bringing pets into Bali is iffy. There is a huge stray animal problem on the island, some even from expats who thought it a grand idea to bring their pet from their rabies-free home country to Bali. Due to the prevalence of rabies, there have been times in the very recent past where it was impossible to take your pet with you when leaving. It’s a situation in flux and you should count on 14-day pet quarantine on one side or the other, and be OK with periods lasting months or years where you cannot leave the country with your pet. Rehoming your pet with family or friends could prove less traumatizing unless you are sure you’ll make Bali your permanent home.

temples and quality of life in bali for expats

What’s the Quality of Life?

Bali is a small island with a heap to offer expats and locals alike. You can live in one area, and still easily spend a weekend exploring any other part of the island. The surrounding islands are also beautiful, so there’s a lot of life that expands out from your island home.

One of the best parts of living in Bali is just how small your life becomes. It’s a tiny island and you can live in one area but easily spend a weekend exploring any other part of the island. There are also boat trips to surrounding islands, so there’s a lot of life that expands out from your island home. Within a few hours you can get between most cities, and this is particularly true if you live in Ubud, which is where a lot of expats live. Generally, expats on a tight or moderate budget choose the lifestyle and convenience of living near Ubud, while many expats also live in the more resort-like coastal towns.

For me, I had planned to live in Bali for four to six months, at least. I had this wonderfully romantic notion of living outside of Ubud, taking yoga classes regularly, and powering through some new internet projects. And I was woefully reluctant to abandon the dream even when I saw Jonathan Fields’ post about his flee from Bali for lack of good internet just weeks before I was due to leave. That post is now outdated, but it did prove true for my trip. The internet was awful. The rest of my dream, however, did play out as planned. Ubud has a huge community of new age expats, entrepreneurs, and other expats from every walk of life. It’s an odder mix than many other places that I have lived over the years.

If you’re moving to Bali, then you have options on where to live. Ubud is the a popular spot; the bulk of expats live in or around the central part of Bali. That said, the beach towns are also popular—budget and lifestyle will dictate which area of Bali you prefer to live. Denpasar is busy and lacks charm. The only expats generally living in Denpasar work for the government or international organizations based out of the city.

Ubud has a reputation as a new age, hippy, spiritual town. Coffee shops and healthy cafes fill the city. Yoga is popular and you’ll have a surprising range of options considering the city’s small size. A friend who lived in Ubud for a season did a “Don’t Knock It ‘Til You’ve Tried It” series sampling the wide range of spiritual and physical activities on offer (from cleanses to kinesiology to meditation). Ubud is also home to arguably the island’s best restaurants. I love this list of vegetarian options. It has a hippy vibe and is undeniably touristy. But it’s also popular and expats tend to love it or leave it.

Seminyak is a popular beach town that mixes pockets of the local culture with a clean beach and nice accommodation. The beaches in Seminyak are quieter without a party scene you can find in some areas. Vendors are also more low-key, and it’s an area popular with both vacationing couples and families. Seminyak is a bit more upscale and expats might enjoy finding a place nearby here. You can still access any amenities in the what was once the hub of tourism in the Kuta beach zone, but the beaches are cleaner and the vibe is much calmer.

Balinese food is wonderful, and the traditional dishes are quite healthy (and vegetarian-friendly too!). The local restaurants, warungs, have affordable meals and tasty options. Many dishes contain rice, chicken, and even tempeh. You can each on a budget here if you stick to local spots. The fresh fruit and vegetables are also gorgeous, so it’s easy to buy local produce and cook at home. As a rice-based culture, it’s fairly celiac friendly too. With the number of new-age hippy types living in Bali, the locals are familiar with the concepts of vegetarianism and gluten-free. In general, it’s a good option for those with dietary restrictions.

Notably for many expats is the cost of alcohol. Alcohol is highly taxed in Bali and it will not fit into those on an extreme budget. If you are looking to live somewhere both affordable in general, and affordable for a daily drink, consider other spots in Southeast Asia like Thailand and Vietnam.

Medical care is a concern for some expats considering moving to Bali. The main hospital, Sanglah Hospital, is located in Denpasar. If you have a major injury or illness, this is where you will need to be treated. Other areas of the island have clinics, but there is not a strong medical infrastructure and for a life-threatening injury you would be using the Denpasar hospital. Additionally, many expats report that they fly to Bangkok or Singapore for planned surgeries and procedures.

What Does it Cost to Live in Bali?

All prices on the right column are adjusted to form a best-estimate on the budget for a single person in that city. The case-studies, however, include a range of couples, families, and retirees. Additionally, most landlords offer rental discounts for year-long leases. Several single expats in the digital nomad crowd report higher expenses than the rock bottom that is possible. In general, some of the digital nomad crowd, versus the expats or families, live in the trendier areas and splurge on a few extras. Areas for splurging include which district you live in, the level of westernization on the apartment, and A/C consumption.

In short, the cost of living in Bali depends on your lifestyle and which city you choose as rent varies wildly in places like outskirts of Ubud versus Seminyak. Lowest tier rent buys you a room in a family compound, a bit more affords a lovely bungalow in the rice paddies. Higher end rents afford more Western-style apartments with full A/C and kitchens. Living costs also depend on diet as Bali has an organic health-food craze and those meals are priced much higher than local fare. Case studies below show what a range of lifestyles looks like when living in Bali.

Ubud Cost of Living: $700 – $1,500

Expat Victor shared his monthly Bali expenses in 2018, and then checked back in late 2019 to share that, even though some of the other expat expenses below might seem outdated, it’s all pretty accurate. As of 2019, Victor was enjoying a 2-bedroom rice paddy flat for just $267 a month, and motorbike rental and gas for under $60 a month. You can get a massive food haul of fresh veg for almost nothing, so it’s still in 2020 completely reasonable to expect a baseline cost of living in the $700 range.

When I landed in 2010, within a few days I knew that the party vibe on Kuta beach was too much for me. I headed inland to the cultural heart and booked a few nights at the Artini guesthouse, which are dead center in town. Once I started wandering around town, I found an enormous expat community able to help me find long-term accommodation. Many coffee shops have notice boards. You can use a real estate agent, or you can wander through the outskirts of town asking for rentals. I had lined up a small one-bedroom private accommodation in a rice paddy for roughly $300 U.S. Friends staying in town were living in a bedroom in a family compound for $100. Even in the time I stayed in Bali, however, I knew that food would become my real expense. Although local food is quite affordable for foreigners, the number of fancy, organic restaurants are enticing. It’s easy to go into town for an afternoon and end up spending $8 for an organic lunch, $3 for single-origin coffee and another $10 on a yoga class or activity. For this reason, although Bali is budget for many, most expats will end up closer to a mid-range budget if they live in Ubud.

Darren and Shelley reports from 2017 bear out some of the older cost of living posts that exist for Ubud. They spent a total of $811 per month and $390 of that went toward a one-bedroom villa. The rest went to a mix of food, motorbike rental, and various other expenses that fall right in line with what most expats tend to spend on the budget end of the spectrum. They were not splurging, and so this is what you can expat if you are looking to enjoy your time but save money, too.

My friends Simon and Erin lived in Bali for a season in 2015. They have a similar lifestyle to my own, which is a vegetarian diet, limited partying, and the bulk of outings are cultural activities. They stayed in Junjungan village, which is a bit outside of Ubud but still accessible. You will likely need to rent a motorbike to navigate between the two, but Erin reports that it was quite easy and she navigated into the city for yoga classes. Their cost of living budget splurges on nice accommodation, and Bali is no exception. They found a beautiful, quiet spot and paid about $900 per month for their rental, and spent $40 per month for a motor bike rental.

And if you’re a family moving to Bali, the Benders report in that their family of four lived in Bali for about $2,000 per month. They only spent a month in Bali, which means they did not get a long-term rental discount, and spent about $1,400 on their 2-bedroom villa that included wifi, daily cleaning, television, and breakfast.

Seminyak Cost of Living: $900 – $2,000

Seminyak has a lot to offer for expats with a mid-range budget. This family shared how they travel Bali with kids. Although they don’t share their costs, they report that of the beaches — Kuta, Legian, Nusa Dua — that their family prefers Seminyak. As an expat, you’ll find the local warungs with affordably priced food, and the less touristy places that make Seminyak more like home than like a tourist haven. Another family, Stewart is the owner of the best site about traveling Southeast Asia, Travelfish. He has lived in Bali with his family for many years.

In the expat forums, the general consensus is that you can find a long-term rental in the southern beach areas for about $500 per month. You can spend a whole lot more than that too, but that’s a good baseline.

Canggu Cost of Living: $900 – $1,200

Daneger and Stacey share their digital nomad costs of living all over the world, and in Bali they deviated a bit from their normal lifestyle. Dane lived in Canggu in a shared villa with other expats for $363 per month. His food costs came in at about $300 per month with a mix of dining out and groceries. Total costs were USD $782 for the month in Bali, but in his video he talks about how some of his choices were too budget to sustain long-term. For that reason, you’re likely looking at closer to a minimum $1,000 for a Canggu cost of living that you would maintain long-term.

Overall, living in Bali is comparable to a few other spots in Asia in terms of costs, but there are clear differences in the quality of life. While it is possible to live on $600 per month in Bali on an uber, bare-bones budget, many expats will need more than that for a comfortable lifestyle with Western amenities. The huge expat scene in Bali means that it’s very easy to spend more on luxuries like fancy restaurants, diving, and yoga. Places like Vietnam and Thailand are better for uber budget expats; you will enjoy life more by expanding your budget and allowing for extra activities and events.

A baseline of $1,200 a month is reasonable for a nice life in many desirable areas of the country. And while all this research gives a good baseline of vibes for each place and possible costs, I can’t tell you how much I recommend that you plan a trip to Bali so you can do your research in person. If you have the time, consider spending your tourist visa as a research trip. You could visit the island for two months and see a whole lot.

If you’re still researching various expat spots, check out our other Cost of Living Guides for a close look the what it takes to move to the world’s most popular expat spots.

Resources For Moving to Bali

should you move to Bali?

These resources will help you more thoroughly each aspect of moving to Bali and what it might look like in your own situation. Other expat cost of living breakdowns can only roughly approximate what your expenses might average if you move to Bali.

  • You will need comprehensive worldwide expat insurance and separate property insurance policy once you’re living overseas—I’ve used IMG Global and Clements for many years now with great success and highly recommend both.
  • A Better Life for Half the Price: A Mexican expat breaks down all the major expat spots in the world with costs, quality of living, and resources. I learned a lot and found a couple of countries I hadn’t previously considered. It’s worth buying if you’re still searching out which country is best for the life you want to live.
  • Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America: There are a lot of these general guides. The book above, Better Life is about where is a good culture fit, whereas this is the better of the lot of “move overseas” books that covers the practicalities and very hands-on information you need as someone considering living anywhere outside the U.S. If you’re new all the researching, this can kick-start your process. And if you are laser-focused on the retirement topic, versus moving overseas at a different state in life, this retirement guide has great advice.
  • The Tax Book for U.S. Expats: This is well-priced and unique to expats and retirees filing abroad. It gives a granular look at forms, terms, and sorting out exactly how to file — good for those with complicated tax situations. More recently released, U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans goes broader and is aimed at younger expats and digital nomads still working and handling how to earn income overseas, pay taxes, and live a nomadic life. It doesn’t explain the terms or niche situations/forms as well as the other book, but instead acts as a guide for younger travelers. Depending on your situation, pick up a copy of one of these guides before you leave so that you will have a tax system in place that maximizes the opportunities to easily file.
  • A House in Bali: The story of composer Colin McPhee’s obsession with Balinese gamelan music after listening to a rare gramophone recording and his journey to Bali to experience the music firsthand in the 1930s.
  • Bali: A Paradise Created: This book is a fascinating read which acts as a bridge between scholarly works and popular travel accounts. A mixture of the history and culture of Bali, as well as a look at the foreigners who flock to it.
  • Bali Daze: Freefall of the Tourist Trail: Written by expat Cat Wheeler, Bali Daxe explores a side to Bali that few tourists see, and offers valuable advice and tips. As someone who has lived in Southeast Asia for 25 years, Cat is a valuable resource for anyone thinking of calling Bali home.
  • Digital Nomad Guide to Bali: This is a thorough post detailing what you need to know if you plan to work from Bali, completely with coworking recommendations and advice on how to find good wifi.
  • Overview of Ubud: My friends give a great look at various areas and offer up a list of activities and class you can partake in while you’re there.
  • Ubud has several coworking spaces, all of which have strong internet connections that usually guarantee you can get online if your own internet is dicey that day. These are also a great way to get to know the other digital nomads, startups, and entrepreneurs. The coworking spaces are: Hubud, Outpost
  • Yoga: I took classes at the Yoga Barn and thoroughly enjoyed this yoga studio. There are many other yoga studios too, however, so you’ll have options.
  • How to Stay in Bali (Semi) Long-Term: A well-written post outlining the various visa options if you plan to more there as a digital nomad, student, etc.
  • Ubud has a large expat community, consider joining their Facebook Group to find answers to questions and to seek advice.

Planning a Research Trip to Bali?

I highly recommend that you take a research trip to Bali before you decide to go through the process of moving your life there.

  • Pick out a good travel insurance policy like World Nomads (I’ve used them since 2008 and fully reviewed them here) to cover you while you’re either in transit visiting your future home—this is not an expat policy, it’s travel insurance. For comprehensive worldwide expat insurance, I have always used IMG Global—I’ve made claims on IMG and gotten emergency care abroad and it’s always worked quite well. Make sure you have travel insurance like World Nomads. You will likely want to rent a motorbike to explore, and you should absolutely cover your personal safety before doing so—take note that travel insurance only covers you if you are legally allowed to drive a motorbike in your home country.
  • Airbnb is growing in popularity throughout the island and it’s a good way to see how you can live like a local by renting from a local.
  • Consider staying at Gerhana Sari 2 Bungalows for a nice mid-range place from which you can research. I stayed at the Artini Cottages, and they were very nice. They have a range of rooms at every price level (they run under a few names, Artini 1, Artini 2, and Artini 3—check out each for the range of price options).

Recommended Cultural Reading: If you’re hoping to fully immerse in the local culture, then there a few good books you should read. This Earth of Mankind is an acclaimed novel written by an Indonesian novelist about the Java colonialists. A Little Bit One O’clock: Living with a Balinese Family is a great option for those who like reading memoirs that illuminate culture. If you want a thorough accounting of the island’s history, bar none read Short History of Bali.

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Cost of Living PDF: Bali