Last Updated on February 5, 2020
An increasing number of retirees and digital nomads are looking for ways to save costs, experience a new culture, and live in another country. Our comprehensive guides detail and compare the cost of living in the world’s major expat spots. Since 2008, I have explored the world slowly, and I’ve lived everywhere from Mexico to Thailand. While I am a traveler at heart, and I have comprehensive travel guides for even more destinations, over the course of a decade I often stopped for 6+ months in one spot to get a better idea of the local culture, to create a community, and to understand a new place. Now, I live in Barcelona, Spain full time.
It’s never been straightforward knowing if I would like a spot before I arrived. That held true even when moving to Spain. Information is often scattered, and it’s hard to know your actual costs once you’re on the ground. Using interviews with expats, my personal travels, and detailed research, the information in these comprehensive cost of living comparison guides will help you decide which spot in the world is best for your lifestyle and your goals.
Many digital nomads have a unique eye toward spots with a large start-up scene. Socially conscious travelers look for a chance to immerse in the local culture. Retirees have a different set of concerns, including retiree visas, healthcare systems, and quality of life. A Little Adrift’s country-specific cost of living guides answer the tough questions, discuss quality of life in each spot, and provide thorough resources and links to continue your research, and to compare to places you’re considering living. My goal is simple: to help other expats pick a spot that best matches their income and goals, and that is a good culture-fit.
How to Choose Between Two Destinations
Moving overseas is rarely a choice that has a clearly correct answer. Should you move to Thailand or Mexico? Mexico or Costa Rica? Can you afford to move to Europe? Answering these questions comes down to knowing the pros and cons of living in each place, comparing the actual situation as related by expats living there (not government warnings), and then deciding which place best fits your situation.
Here are key areas of concern and things you should keep in mind when comparing living one place versus another. In your specific situation, you will likely have different priorities than other expats you meet in Facebook groups and online forums. One key to truly choosing a place that fits is reading through the key areas of concern, deciding which ones are most important to you, and then finding honest information online (or in person) to then evaluate and compare your two destinations based on that criteria.
Which country is safer on a country-wide level, and then specifically in the cities/regions you’re considering?
Talking safety is an inflammatory issue in some regions because of the wide variance (Mexico, for example, is very safe in some areas and patently unsafe in others). A country can have serious safety concerns while also having incredible safe regions (the Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, for example).
What type of safety concerns are there in each country?
Safety is a complex topic. By many statistics, travelers are more likely face critical injuries from traffic accidents abroad than to face any violent crime. If you are considering moving to Thailand, Vietnam, or Bali and you would buy a motorbike once there, you have now significantly shifted your safety profile for those countries.
Moving to Europe, on the other hand, has so many public transportation options and regulations that you are relatively safer moving there compared to Southeast Asia, at least on this core issue. Physical safety varies as well, in terms of crime statistics and whatnot. Theft is an ever-present concern in many countries with significant wealth inequality, and you would need to research your potential destination to accurately assess and compare this aspect.
Is the government stable and/or high-functioning?
When leaving behind your home country, you make a trade—even a bargain in some cases. You leave behind a government and processes that you inherently understand (and sometimes have foundational and ideological kinship with) and trade that for a new (and often vastly different) system of government.
In Thailand, that means living in a country where you physically stand up for the Royal Family and you submit to military-enforced curfews and governance during troubled times. In Costa Rica, you are folded into a the fabric of a country and government prioritizing ecologically sound environmental policies, but still facing criticism on how indigenous peoples are treated. And in Europe, you may find yourself living in a city embroiled in heated debate about immigration and politics.
In each place, the government will have different policies about how expats can interact with the government. In some cases there is a clear path to citizenship, others more stringently enforce policies to keep expats out of the daily life of the country’s politics and government. And in all cases, if something were to happen, this new government is the one you will rely on for help in a natural disaster or crisis. Look at your potential new homes and think about which of your options best resonates with your values and views.
How close is the new culture to your own, and can you see yourself assimilating?
This is one area few people consider up front, but it’s an issue you will face in the months and years after you move to a new place. Although we love the idea of sinking into a new culture and becoming “one” with our new home, that’s easier said than done. Some cultures are so different than our own that it is difficult to become a part of that place. It’s difficult to identify as a part of the new culture, and instead you are left as the eternal outsider.
To an extent, this is a commonly accepted attitude in some expat, digital nomad, and retiree populations—you may be moving to a new place for financial, work, or other concerns, with no desire to become Vietnamese / Indonesian / Mexican, etc. But if you hope to weave yourself into the fabric of life in your new home, then you might need to consider how close it is to your home culture. In some cases, a North American or European moving to Central or South America may feel more able to integrate into the local community than if they had chosen a place in Southeast Asia, for example.
Are you willing to learn the language?
Look at the languages in each place and assess if you are willing to learn the language, and if your answer to that question will impact your ability to have an enjoyable experience in your new home. For English speakers, learning a tonal language like Thai will take longer and require far more work and more time than learning Spanish.
How much will it cost to return to see family and friends or take care of business?
Too often, I see expats and digital nomads touting the extremely low cost of living in Thailand without factoring in how much it costs to conduct international business and make trips home to see family. With low-cost airlines running between Central America and the U.S., you are looking at a much lower price tag than if you move to Asia, where flights can easily cost a grand during the high seasons. Perhaps you are retiring and have few reasons to return to your home country—then this issue is of much lower concern for you. But if you return home even once a year, then those expenses, when factored across a year, might adjust your cost of living comparisons to be on par with another location on your list.
How does your lifestyle compare to the budgets you have viewed?
The blogosphere is filled with cost of living posts for spots that are popular with 20- and 30-something digital nomads. These expats (myself included) often have different lifestyles and priorities than a family moving overseas for work, or a retiree looking for a place to live for the next few decades on a social security check. Whereas we may pay a lot for speedy internet, hipster lattes, and socializing, you may need to more thoroughly research health insurance and fees associated with buying a condo or property.
Ask yourself: Are you willing and happy to eat local street food several times a week (or a day!), will you cook, or do you plan to eat at higher-end expat spots? All of these factors will impact your own daily cost of living and can dramatically impact your monthly expenses, which is important if you are moving to a new place with a specific budget in mind. Although I find blogger cot of livings provide deeper nuance on what you get for your money, sites like Numbeo, Nomad List, and Expatistan offer more objective and directly comparable cost of living analyses.
Can you get a visa?
There’s a certain nonchalance in the expat and digital nomad world implying that you can move almost anywhere in the world if you’re smart enough, brave enough, or want it enough. But that’s not true. The only place that has to let you live there is your home country, the rest of the world isn’t obligated to accept your request for a residency or retirement visa. And in some cases, these governments make it downright tricky to secure a residency visa unless you meet a series of sometimes granularly specific terms and conditions.
If you’re retiring abroad and you have a good chunk of money, you are in the best possible scenario as most foreign governments (and all that I have profiled and compared in the Cost of Living Guides) have clear rules and requirements for securing a retirement visa.
If you are not retiring, and you’re hoping to live as a digital nomad or obtain a work visa, then you may find this list of spots narrows considerably. Younger expats and digital nomads can look at student visa policies if they are interested in attending ongoing language classes (my friends have done this everywhere from Thailand to Spain), or they can (and often do) flout the visa policies and “live” in a place on a series of tourist visas. That’s a cinch in a place like Mexico, where North Americans receive six months on arrival and an unlimited number of re-entries. But in Thailand, Vietnam, and other places, your time living there becomes a series of elaborate border crossings and visa extensions, and every time you leave there’s a chance they won’t let you return. “Living” somewhere on a tourist visa works if you are testing the waters to decide if it’s a good fit for you, but you should factor into your choices how likely it is that you can secure a longer-term residency visa.
Cost of Living Comparison
Researching the right spot to live? These comprehensive Cost of Living Guides share extensive resources or all the major expat spots around the world. These guides include thorough breakdowns of the culture, quality of life, vibe, and—importantly—budget breakdowns and comparisons so you can better plan which spot in the world best meets your needs.
Resources to Research Moving Overseas
- A Better Life for Half the Price: This book is big on inspiration if you are still casting a wide net on places you might want to live.
- Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America: The book above, Better Life is about deciding where is a good culture fit, whereas this book offers more comprehensive information on how to actually make a move happen. Of the many options, you will find on Amazon, this is the best one covering the practicalities, with the hands-on information you need as someone considering living anywhere outside the U.S. If you’re new all the researching, this book will 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 a well-priced guide and valuable because it’s unique to expats and retirees filing taxes 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.
There are three layers of insurance soon-to-be expats should consider. One is travel insurance while you are on the road visiting the places you may move to eventually. After 10 years on the road, I consistently carry a travel policy the moment I book tickets somewhere, even if I am already living as an expat with local health insurance. The second insurance is health insurance. If you are legally moving to a new place, you may need to provide proof of health insurance before they will consider your visa application (Spain required this). And lastly, gear insurance is important, particularly if you move to countries with high levels of inequality, or if you carry expensive camera gear or electronics. Here are the companies I use, and the others that I researched and considered when moving overseas.
- World Nomads is a solid travel insurance option when you are in transit to a new place. My full review is here.
- For meeting international health insurance standards that still cover you in the U.S., I use IMG Global and my expat health insurance plan was affordable and paid out on my claims without issue.
- For property insurance once you’re living overseas, I’ve used Clements for many years now and highly recommend them. Non-Americans and others should consider Protect My Bubble and Photo Guard.