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Best places to retire abroad – The truth exposed

The real truth and realities of living in many of the top retirement destinations frequently written about online. Get the facts not fiction.

One of the main reasons I started this website was out of sheer frustration at the amount of BS on the internet about living abroad. The vast majority of website articles published by so-called ‘expert correspondents’ bare little resemblance to the actual realities of moving or living in a particular country. 

You won’t find pretty pictures in this article, you’ve got Google for that. What you will find are opinions based on my own real life experiences. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and your views may differ from mine, which is O.K. However, I trust the following will be at the very least, thought provoking!

Keeping it Real

Whilst I am the first to extoll the virtues of expat life, everyone is different and what’s great for one person is horrible for the next. The COVID pandemic has shed further light on how countries are run, how free citizens truly are and how long-stay foreigners are treated by government and local authorities. In a lot of instances expats have been forgotten about and left to their own devices, with little if any accurate information about their rights forthcoming.

Right then, with the above in mind – let’s get down to business. Here are some facts about places that are frequently recommended as the best places in the world to retire (and/or live).

Vietnam 

Often touted as a country with modern & progressive cities with some of the friendliest people in the world, Vietnam is ultimately a communist country. How many communist regimes do you know of that are modern & progressive? None! It not one of the best places to retire abroad by some margin.

Yes it’s true that the locals are very friendly and welcoming, but the vast majority see foreigners as wealthy and in Asia – Cash is King! 

There are numerous Temples, Monuments and Historical Mansions, which are great to visit as a tourist, but after a couple of years living in Vietnam are you really going to go out of your way to visit temples? Nope!

Vietnamese food is undeniably delicious (you can thank the French for that) and the country has some beautiful mountains, beaches and topography. Publicly accessible places are mediocre at best, so expect to pay through the nose for anything resembling western standards as depicted in the glamour images plastered all over the internet.

Once the initial excitement of living in Vietnam has wained, what exactly are you going to do with yourself? Have you ever tried cycling in Vietnam? Good luck with that – you won’t last 10 minutes. The cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Min are crowded, dirty and full of smog. Sure they have quaint corners tucked away down back streets and a wide variety of delicious street food is readily available but it is chaotic. After a few years you will likely get fed-up with the noise and seek a base somewhere a little less crowded (in the provinces without access to many amenities) or a place a little less communist– in which case, moving to another country is your best option.

France

Everyone thinks of Paris – “The most romantic city in the world”, right? My God where are Advertising Standards when you need them? Shit service, unhelpful, arrogant local Parisians and graffiti everywhere. If you love architecture, you are content to wander the streets without interacting with anyone and have deep pockets then sure, give Paris a whirl. Thankfully France has more to offer.

Outside of the major cities France does have a beautiful countryside, wonderful local cuisines and extremely charming towns & villages where the locals are far more welcoming than in the major cities. However, property isn’t cheap to buy anymore, local taxes are draconian and you better be prepared to learn the French language – Fast! 

France is a good option for the ‘middle classes’ looking for one of the best places to retire abroad in Europe. Retirees living in France are predominantly from other countries in mainland Europe and the U.K. The healthcare system is good and the pace of life is relaxed. You need a budget of circa $3,000pm to live comfortably in France. If you are on a modest budget forget it. Living in France isn’t cheap. 

Spain

A country packed with tourists in the summer months (avoid the beaches at these times) and a huge year-round expat community. Spain is definitely an open-minded, progressive country (largest ‘Pride Festival’ in Europe) with great food, and various climates depending on whereabouts in the country you live. 

Spain is also surprisingly cheap compared to other European countries and has for many years enjoyed a very competitive Cost of Living Index rating. That said, the capital Madrid isn’t what I would call cheap. It is cheeper than many other capital cities and at best can be described as fairly priced. No matter where you look, Madrid oozes culture and charm. Outside of the capital, the places to live are endless with coastal areas being particularly popular with retired expats from all over the world (but mainly from other European countries). 

Public transport in Spain is very good including a great train network. Often overlooked is Spain’s beautiful countryside. Don’t ignore it.

If you are likely to be on a tight budget or in the ‘mid-price’ bracket (circa $2,000pm) then Spain should be on your radar. Spain is definitely one of the best places to retire abroad, and worthy of consideration.

If you have a bit more money, you consider yourself ‘middle class’ or just down right ‘Posh’ (and don’t fancy France) then Portugal would be your number one choice of European destination as it’s a bit more reserved & polished than Spain and in very general terms, the Portuguese are more welcoming than the French.

Malaysia

This one always makes me chuckle. I have lived in Malaysia and although it has its charms I wouldn’t exactly list it as the top choice in Asia to retire. You have two options really – Kuala Lumpur (K.L.) or Penang. 

Kuala Lumpur is the capital and trust me, unless you are working there then don’t even think about living there. The country prides itself on being based on the British legal system (thank colonial rule for that) but as the massive 1Malaysia Development Fund scandal highlighted, its a corrupt country with a very poor track record regarding the treatment of immigrant workers (the Malaysians are too ‘posh’ to do the dirty work themselves) and there is a constant feeling of governmental surveillance.

As a muslim country there are no casinos (not necessarily a bad thing) but alcohol is heavily taxed and therefore really expensive. There are a zillion shopping Malls in K.L. and you can find every kind of cuisine imaginable. The average local is friendly and the capital is relatively safe – but foreign women will regularly get annoyed by the unwanted attention they receive from horny men, especially if you are blonde or have blue eyes!

Penang is pushed as a retirement haven in Asia. Whilst it is true that Penang is safe, amenities are good and the expat scene is active – Penang is full of snobby, privileged expats that regularly look down their noses at others until they are part of the clique. Think snobby Polo Club or Country Club ‘inner circles’ and you have Penang pretty much summed-up. Georgetown has a certain colonial charm to it, but the whole area is an over-priced boutique haven for expats with more money than sense. Snobby, wealthy, privileged Cougars (usually happily divorced or newly widowed gold diggers) can be found everywhere.

Malaysia is made out to be a cheap place to live in Asia. I don’t know where the so-called experts are getting their information from – have they ever actually lived in the country? To say Malaysia is a cheap place to live is categorically wrong. If you live some distance away from the expat crowd then you can rent a place more cheaply, but for any half-decent middle of the road accommodation and lifestyle in Malaysia it is going to cost you a lot of more than you think!

Ecuador

The only people in their right minds who would even consider Ecuador as a country to move to are those going on a work placement (your employer hates you!) and returning Ecuadorians. 

Cost of living is OK at around $2,000pm. The pleasant year-round climate and cheap retirement visas (they got to do something to entice you there) are all positives. Similarly, any single man will be blown away at just how beautiful the young women are in Ecuador (think Miss World). However, along with several other pitfalls, Ecuadorian women are fiercely independent (at first charming, later they are just too high maintenance) and they posses an off-the-scale temper that is quite frankly – frightening!

As for living in the country itself, Ecuador is quite literally full of shit. To be more precise, dog shit. People are outnumbered by starving stray dogs, meaning you are unlikely to get a decent nights sleep for all the barking and whining going on outside. 

Everything in Ecuador is covered in dust. Outside in the street and inside your home. You can’t escape it and everything seems to be caked in a layer of dust. 

Electricity is hit and miss with frequent brownouts and the water is unsafe to drink. The benefits of an abundance of beautifully fresh market produce is outweighed by the fact that you have to boil water to wash any produce before you even start cooking or preparing it. What a pain in the arse. 

Other huge frustrations are that the government frequently changes the rules for everything, resulting in a life of chaos and insecurity for foreigners. Furthermore, has anyone mentioned the bugs? And not just mosquitoes – if it flies and bites, it’s probably native to Ecuador! Ecuador has three main residents (in descending order): Dogs, Bugs, Ecuadorians.

Columbia

This is an odd one. On one hand you cannot ignore the fact that drugs and Columbia go hand-in-hand and anyone that tells you that drugs are not an issue in Columbia anymore is full of shit. They are everywhere, but no more so than any other country with ‘party hard’ socialites or depressed down-and-outs. Supply and demand etc. Are drugs still a major Columbian export? Hell yes!

This said, retiring in Columbia is surprisingly easy, the locals are friendly and the cost of living is low. A single expat can live comfortably on $1,500pm and a couple circa $2,500pm – including healthcare (which is extremely good in Columbia). Healthcare is far better than in the U.S. and Canada for example (according to the World Health Index) and readily accessible. Top marks!

Columbia enjoys a great climate, super friendly locals and diverse topography. Eating out is dirt cheap (lunch about $5), produce is abundant and so is fresh fish, chicken, beef and pork.

Columbia is smack in the middle of Latin America, so if life in Columbia gets a bit boring or you fancy a brief change of scene, other places in Latin America are just a short flight away.

All the above sound too good to be true? Well, there are some major downsides to living in Columbia.

Firstly, bureaucracy is an absolute nightmare and this is amplified by the casual laid-back attitude of Columbians in general. Being chilled-out is great when you don’t want to get anything done – but it’s a complete nightmare when you do!

The big cities of Columbia are plagued by a zillion motorcycles and are smoggy. Not as bad as say, Ho Chi Min, Hanoi or Manila in Asia – but dirty all the same. Yuk!

Generally as a foreigner living in Columbia you will feel safe (excluding the roads of course). As a foreigner you could potentially be seen as a target for petty crime, but thankfully this is unusual and certainly less prevalent than your average U.S or European big city.

Biggest concerns for living in Columbia would be the regular political instability (they are always arguing the toss over everything) and an extremely volatile currency. Best to keep most of your money offshore in a more stable currency and only bring-in what you need, when you need it (drip feed).

Columbia has for decades been in a constant state of flux. For some this is all part of its charm, for others it’s a pain in the arse. However, Columbia is still worthy of consideration as one of the best places to retire abroad in this part of the world.

Mexico

Mexico is warm, laid back and a cheap place to live. Depending upon locale a couple can live comfortably on between $1,500pm – $3,000pm (upscale). The locals are friendly and it is easy to be ‘accepted’ by local villagers as part of the family in no time.

Although Mexico has longer-stay tourist visas for 180 days, if you plan to stay longer you need to do regular ‘border runs’ and eventually apply for a temporary residency visa (valid for 4 years).

Utilities, beaches and healthcare are all excellent and very affordable – all good. The food is tasty, but food hygiene is very poor. You have been warned!

Outside of the tacky places rammed with tourists (Cancun being the prime example) only 5% of Mexicans speak English – so you better be prepared to learn Spanish pretty darn quickly.

Renting property in Mexico is an absolute bureaucratic and complex nightmare. Trust me, it will drive you insane! Just like getting any administrative paperwork done in Mexico, everything is the living embodiment of bureaucracy and far from being ‘charming’ like you read everywhere else online.

If you are looking for a tranquil, peaceful retirement – then you better cross Mexico off your list immediately. Mexico is LOUD. Bars, restaurants, transport blaring out adverts, you name it, it’s all turned up to volume 11. You will either hate it and/or slowly go deaf and become immune. Personally, I hated it and an otherwise affordable retirement destination is completely ruined by just how noisy Mexico is – and it’s noisy everywhere!

This said, I wouldn’t recommend Mexico as a good country to live in anyway. The police are corrupt, crime rates are sky high, punctuality is non-existent, most bills cannot be paid online, many common food & personal items are unavailable in Mexico and food hygiene is an absolute joke. Mexico is also a haven for scammers of all kinds. Do you want to live in constant fear of being scammed, ripped off, mugged or worse? No – me neither. Forget the BS you read about living in Mexico. Sure, enjoy a holiday there, but living there out of choice is quite simply, stupid.

Costa Rica

WTF? C’on you’re joking right? Transportation outside of cities is virtually non existent, the wonderful healthcare system is very hit-and-miss, the locals don’t really give a shit about foreigners and the foreigners don’t really give a shit about the locals. 

The majority of expats live amongst other expats in Costa Rica – what’s the point in that? And this is much to the bemusement of the well educated locals who generally have decided to tolerate their existence for the benefit(s) brought solely to the local economy.

Biodiversity – yep Costa Rica has plenty of that. How many expats living in Costa Rica regularly explore further than their sun lounger? Very few. Life outside cities is peaceful but provincial. 

If anything goes wrong – “It’s Gods will” (oldest excuse in the book that one). Expect plenty of BS with whatever it is you want to get done in Costa Rica.

Why do people live there then? Basically, lazy-arsed Americans that can’t be bothered to move further away from ‘home’ and for TAX purposes. Costa Rica has substantially lower taxes than many other countries, so there’s the two reasons right there. If you can be bothered to venture further afield (if you’re American) or not bothered so much about taxes, then there are many other countries offering far more attractive retirement propositions than Costa Rica. For instance:

Panama

Panama is definitely a country that has more to offer than just ‘cigars’ and ‘Papers’. Whilst it’s true Panama hit the headlines globally with the exposé of dodgy offshore companies with silent partners, unlisted directors and secret beneficiaries (the ‘Panama Papers’ exposé) it is nonetheless a country that offers an attractive proposition for expats and retirees in general.

Just like any developing, growing and maturing economy/country, Panama can justly be criticised for its lackadaisical attitudes to getting things done, but this is mainly in terms of lifestyle and services. Efficiency towards financial business and commerce is noticeably better than it is for the local plumber or electrician! 

The “Mañana” effect, where everything that can be put-off until tomorrow – will be, is self evident in Panama, as it is in many other countries, especially in Asia. However, Panamanians do seem to get things done even if you do have to wait a little while.

As far as the cost of living, healthcare, safety, food, climate, culture and friendliness of its locals, Panama scores high – very high! There is generally very little to criticise about Panama and it is rightfully a particular favourite retirement destination for expats and retirees who have done their homework. 

I have visited Panama twice and from what I have seen, Panama is by far the best choice for retiring expats who wish to live in that part of the world.

No matter if you seek mountain tranquility, lush tropical landscapes, rolling ocean waves or a cosmopolitan city, Panama really does have you covered. 

It is worth noting that as the official currency of Panama is the USD$, currency exchange rates and local currency volatility are of little concern for most expats and retirees. 

Unlike many other over-hyped retirement and expat destinations, Real Estate is also very affordable in Panama. Condos, homes and apartments are cheaper than previously (not anymore) affordable places in Asia for example. In fact, compared to most other decent retirement destinations, Panama is a bit of a bargain!

In this part of the world, Panama is definitely one of the best places to live abroad (if not the best) in Latin America.

Portugal

OK it’s very hard to fault Portugal as a pleasant country to live in. It oozes history, stunning architecture, amazing mediterranean cuisine, fantastic topography and an abundance of amenities, activities and culture. Combine that with Portugal being home of Port Wine, ancient ruins, museums, walks, hiking, cycling/motorcycle tours and a varied climate – and it’s easy to understand why Portugal has been my number one favourite European country to live in for a very long time. 

I have visited and lived in Portugal. Whilst it is true that you will (eventually) have to learn the basics of the Portuguese language, you can do this whilst enjoying some of the very best food and wine available on planet earth. And Portugal is safe. The locals are well educated, refined, stylish, generally very well natured and passionate. Transportation is good and relatively cheap.

I read everywhere that Portugal is an affordable and sometimes cheap place to live. In my opinion this is wrong. Whilst I agree that Portugal is most definitely the best country in Europe to live, work and retire (on the quality of life scale) the cost of living varies greatly in Portugal.

The capital Lisbon (Lisboa) is a beautiful city dripping in history, but renting an apartment in a half-decent district of Lisbon isn’t exactly cheap. Expect to pay at least €1,500pm for a 1bed apartment with very basic amenities. 

Walk up the road to the beautiful and #1 retirement areas of Estoril and Cascais and you are talking mega-money. Yes, if you are lucky and not too fussy you can rent an apartment in these upscale areas for circa €2,000pm – but if you want longer term stability and wish to buy? Hell, property prices are HIGH! 

Porto in the north is a great choice, being a large historic city with considerable charm, a large expat community and good quality of life. The cost of living in Porto is somewhat lower than Lisbon (and neighbouring Cascais) mainly due to lower rents and property prices.

On the coast you will find many expat havens (think costa del sol in Spain) holiday lets and such like. These areas are not my personal favourite as they are packed to the rafters with tourists in the summer months and don’t have much on offer in terms of culture, style or ‘class’. 

There is definitely a city, coastal area, town or village in Portugal that is perfect for 95% of expats looking to move and live abroad – Portugal really is that nice. Portugal is in my opinion one of the best places in the world to live abroad. And the best country to retire to in Europe.

What about the ‘other 5%’? Well, I would say either they wish to live somewhere closer to where they originally came from (e.g. Panama if you are American) or budget/affordability will favour Asia (e.g. the Philippines – much cheaper than Thailand).

The Philippines

Often overlooked by those considering moving abroad, and wrongfully so. The Philippines has an estimated 2.2M OFW’s (Overseas Foreign Workers) as at the end of 2019. The Philippines has been invaded and run by the Spanish, the Americans and is now independent. This rather rocky history has bred a bunch of hardworking, loyal, independent, english speaking, educated and welcoming people. Filipinos mix well in other countries, are polite, energised, fun and respectful – little wonder so many are recruited abroad (the NHS in the U.K. employs thousands of Filipino doctors and nurses, together with several other care, service and administrative sectors).

The Philippines does get hit by typhoons (generally in the east where there aren’t many major cities or popular expat communities anyway) and earthquakes and erupting volcanoes are commonplace (again most developed areas are somewhat immune).

Compared to over developed beaches, resorts and greedy patronising locals in other parts of Asia, the Philippines is a breath of fresh air. Yes the capital Manila is massive, polluted, congested and a little scary at night, but who in their right mind would want to retire to Manila anyway? 

Outside of the capital (NCR – National Capital Region) can be found well-established expat communities, a cheap, good quality standard of living (for expats and well-healed locals) and unspoilt beaches that you will find hard to beat anywhere else in the world – and for once Yes! the beaches look even better in the flesh than they do in the brochure – they really are that beautiful!

Corruption is a problem in the Philippines and crime in major cities exists, however the average Filipino is incredibly friendly, almost to the point of it being humbling. Filipinos really will go out of their way to help you, and be genuinely very kind and generous. This is probably down to the country being quite religious, with catholic and baptist churches on virtually every corner. 

Although the Philippines has suffered from a very draconian lockdown during the COVID pandemic, the cost of living, friendliness of the locals and genuine camaraderie (we’re all in this together etc.) highlights why the Philippines is a secret gem in Asia. The Philippines is by no means perfect, but anyone considering other more established retirement destinations in Asia would be foolish not to seriously consider the Philippines. 

In Asia I have lived for several years in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Philippines. The Philippines beats the rest in Asia hands down. The people are just so darn lovely – and this makes it a great place to retire, especially as you get older and become elderly. 

Filipinos have a huge respect for the elderly and if you are one, you will most definitely be put to the front of any queue, benefit from state discounts and be treated with kindness and courtesy. However, just don’t try to cross the road – as all this vanishes as Filipinos transform into psychopathic, careless idiots when behind the wheel!

The Philippines has dual taxation agreements with most countries, meaning you won’t be taxed on income from abroad (pensions included). The Philippines also has great retirement visa options that actually welcome and encourage foreigners – unlike countries like Thailand, who have had it far too easy for far too long and are now witnessing an exodus of expats en-mass.

Living abroad winners

West : Panama

It really is a great retirement destination and ticks all the right boxes.

Central : Portugal

Easily the best retirement destination in Europe.

East : Philippines

What it lacks in amenities it makes up for with friendship.

Runners up

West : Columbia

Very welcoming, affordable, great climate and easy to fall in love with.

Central : Spain

Beaten by Portugal, but an excellent second choice. If you’re Posh, choose France.

East : New Zealand

Great outdoor lifestyle. A clean and well run country. Not my speciality though.