The Best Places to Retire Abroad

If you’re hoping to stretch your retirement dollars further, a move abroad may be the answer. Living in a foreign land offers a chance to see more of the world and can offer a lower cost of living.

But which are the best countries for retirees? International Living’s Annual Global Retirement Index highlights the best countries for retirees each year, and 2021’s top 10 list features five Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America. If you’re planning a foreign retirement, it may make sense to put learning Spanish on your to-do list.

Key Takeaways

  • International Living’s Annual Global Retirement Index highlights the best countries for retirees each year.
  • The publication uses a scoring system that measures a variety of factors including cost of renting, cost of living, healthy living, and climate.
  • Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Colombia, and Portugal are 2021’s top five countries for retirees.
  • Before going abroad, check visa and residency requirements, research political stability, determine foreign ownership rules, and visit before moving.

Best Retiree Countries

To determine which countries are the best for retirees, International Living uses a scoring system that measures a variety of factors, including:

  • Ease of buying and owning property and the value of property investments
  • Cost of renting
  • Benefits and discounts on things such as healthcare and entertainment
  • Visa and residency requirements
  • Cost of living
  • Fitting in and how easy it is to make friends
  • Entertainment and amenities
  • Healthy living
  • Development and infrastructure
  • Climate
  • Stability of the country’s political situation

The top 10 countries with the highest cumulative average score across all those categories are:

1. Costa Rica

Costa Rica is an ideal choice if you value a healthy, active lifestyle. It earned high scores in the healthcare, development, and governance categories, and there’s no shortage of things to see and do. The cost of living makes Costa Rica highly affordable, even on the smallest retirement budget. Out of 25 countries surveyed, the cost of living in Costa Rica scored 84 with housing at 74. If you’re looking to buy, you can find homes cheap with property tax rates that are a fraction of what you’d pay in the U.S.

2. Panama

Between majestic mountains and bustling beaches, Panama offers the best of both worlds for retirees. Locals have a reputation for being welcoming and friendly, and from a cost-of-living perspective, it’s highly affordable. Virtually everything is less expensive compared to the U.S. including groceries, restaurants, and rent.

Expats who get a retirement visa enjoy numerous benefits, including deep discounts on entertainment, airfare, local transportation, and hotel stays. The only ‘catch’ is you must have a pension that gives at least $1,000 a month to qualify for the Pensioner visa. But once a retired resident, you will save 25% off power bills, plane fare, and restaurant meals, as well as 20% medication and even 50% off movie tickets.

3. Mexico

Mexico combines modern amenities with a rustic feel, and it’s well suited to retirees who prefer a balmy climate and close proximity to the U.S. It earned its highest ratings on International Living’s list for both entertainment and amenities and the ease of establishing residency. Retirees can get a temporary resident visa, which is good for up to four years, by meeting minimum monthly income or asset requirements or by owning property in Mexico. If you plan to stay long term, you can apply for a permanent resident visa, which has higher income and asset requirements.

Note that five states in Mexico have been marked by the U.S. State Department as do not travel, with another eleven designated as reconsider and fourteen singled out to be extra cautious, so be careful where in Mexico you choose to relocate.

4. Columbia

Columbia has something for everyone, whether you prefer the beach, the mountains, or even exploring the rainforest. A cool mix of colonial and cosmopolitan, there are plenty of nonstop flights from Florida to any major Columbian city. Retirement visas can be easily acquired by proving proof of retirement funds but they will need to be renewed every three years.

Ranked 22 by the World Health Organization, Columbia’s low-cost, quality healthcare system beats the U.S. and Canada, both of whom landed in the 30s. Expats report health insurance premiums in Columbia are about 70% less than in the U.S. Overall, the cost of living scored a high 89, allowing you to squeeze more value out of your retirement dollars.

5. Portugal

Portugal is one of three countries included in the top 10 that’s in Europe. Aside from the beautiful landscape, expats are attracted to this coastal European locale because of the low cost of living and abundance of amenities. Since English is taught in schools, it is easier for Americans to communicate with the local community. There are hundreds of islands to visit, and the low cost and wide variety of restaurants make it a foodie’s paradise. Portugal had the highest scores for housing and climate, as well as high scores for the cost of living and healthcare.

The top 10 list of the best countries to retire to features five Spanish-speaking countries located in Central and South America, a few picturesque European countries, and also includes such exotic locales as Vietnam and Malaysia.

Countries Rounding out the Top 10

The remaining countries in the top 10 all offer a combination of low costs, great amenities, and good weather. In descending order, they are Ecuador, Malaysia, France, Malta, and Vietnam.

More Popular Places to Retire

In addition to International Living’s list, there are lots of sources advising retirees where they should go if they decide to relocate abroad. But where are retirees actually flocking, based on where they collect their Social Security checks? The answers just might surprise you. Here, in order of popularity, are the five countries that are seeing the biggest influx of Social Security recipients who prefer retirement on foreign shores:

  • Canada
  • Japan
  • Mexico
  • Germany
  • United Kingdom

We’ve already discussed Mexico’s advantages. As for the others, while living in capitals like Tokyo or London can be quite pricey, housing and other fundamental aspects of the cost-of-living in smaller towns and in the countryside are often lower than in the U.S., especially when you factor in the universal healthcare many of these countries offer.

Familiarity also explains the popularity of some countries. A large number of U.S. military personnel are stationed in several of these lands and this could lead to a desire to “stay on” after their active service has ended.

How to Plan Your Retirement Abroad

1. Check Visa and Residency Requirements

Immigration and residency laws vary from country to country. You can review the U,S. Department of State’s country-specific information to find out if you’ll need a visa to enter and reside in the country to which you’re hoping to move. Other useful information is listed on the website as well, including passport validity, recommended and required vaccinations, and currency restrictions for entry and exit.

2. Research Safety and Political Stability

The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs provides up-to-date international travel information about how safe and stable various countries are. At times, there will be travel warnings and alerts about specific locations, or rarely, the U.S. may restrict citizens from traveling to or within certain countries. The information is updated regularly, as needed.

As a foreign national, you may encounter travel restrictions in certain countries. Remember that while in a foreign country, you are subject to its laws.

3. Determine Rules of Foreign Ownership

Many countries have rules and regulations as to who is permitted to own property, and how the property can be used—some countries restrict foreign ownership altogether. Before you decide on moving to a country, investigate its restrictions in detail and make sure they work with your finances and plans. Your best information source is a local real estate agent. You can find such agents through the International Consortium of Real Estate Associations (ICREA).

Even if a country does not restrict who buys real estate, it may control what happens when non-citizens sell the property.

Also, be sure that your property rights are protected. In the U.S., homebuyers generally receive a clear title to the property when they buy it. Rules may be less clear in other countries. Be sure you hire a qualified real estate agent and a local attorney to ensure that you know what you’ve purchased and that all paperwork is handled according to local requirements.

4. Visit Before Moving, Rent Before Buying

Living in a country is very different from being a tourist. Try to stay in neighborhoods and areas you are considering to see what it’s like to live like a local. And visit in more than one season. In fact, try to visit once during the least-pleasant weather season of your prospective home—dry desert winds, monsoon rains, dreary winter days when there’s no sun for weeks. You won’t always be able to escape once you’re actually living there. Also, see whether there is a local American or international association or club you can join to learn more about living in that country or region.

Once you move, start the transition by renting first to make sure the locale is compatible with your vision for retirement. If it works out, let the house-hunting begin.

5. Consider an All-Cash Purchase

Locating a U.S.-based bank or another lender that will fund a mortgage for overseas property is exceedingly difficult. Some local banks abroad do make loans to foreigners, but you could be asked for a massive down payment.

Try to find a property you can afford to buy outright, for cash. You’ll have more negotiating power, a less complicated transaction and, in many cases, you may end up with a better deal.

6. Organize Your Assets (and Taxes)

You may be retiring abroad, but your assets don’t have to move with you. Stocks, bonds, annuities, IRAs and the like can remain in the U.S. where the economy and political situation are known factors.

Unless you renounce your U.S. citizenship, you will be subject to the same income tax requirements as if you lived back home. You will still have to file an income tax return with the IRS and will have to declare any money withdrawn from your retirement accounts.

Be sure to consult with a tax attorney or tax advisor before you move, and plan on keeping in touch while abroad to make sure you are in compliance with tax laws at home and abroad. If you decide to move your assets abroad, work with your accountant or attorney to find out if and how they will be taxed.

To cover day-to-day expenses, you can open a local bank account to accept regular transfers from your U.S. account and pay bills.

Online banking and brokerage accounts make it easier than ever to manage money while abroad, but be aware there are restrictions on transfers to certain countries. If your Social Security check is mailed abroad, keep in mind that delivery times vary so it might not always arrive when expected. There is always an option for direct deposit, which also may prevent currency change or check-cashing fees.

Major credit cards—Visa, MasterCard, and American Express—are accepted in locations around the world and provide another option for covering daily living expenses and purchases. Contact your credit card company about an auto-pay option.

7. Settle Your Healthcare

Many U.S. health insurance policies will not cover you while living abroad. And even though Social Security will follow you as you travel, Medicare coverage is extremely limited outside of the U.S.

Depending on your retirement destination, you may find that healthcare is so affordable that you don’t need insurance. If the country offers subsidized care for citizens, for example, make sure foreign residents have access to the same care and costs. If not, find out what coverage you will have as a visitor and plan accordingly. Depending on where you plan to live, you may find American or international companies that sell health insurance to Americans living abroad.

In some countries, healthcare may be affordable but not up to the standards you are used to. If that’s the case, your plan could include adding a certain amount of dollars to your annual budget for health-related travel and care, either back to the U.S. or to a larger city abroad than where you’re living.

If you are currently under the care of a physician at home, ask if he or she can recommend a colleague in your new destination. Having this connection can make it much easier to deal with existing medical conditions and ensure you receive the appropriate care.

8. Get an International Driver’s License

Depending on where you go, your new country may not recognize your U.S. driver’s license. Many countries will accept an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) issued by the American Automobile Association or the American Automobile Touring Alliance. These permits, which usually have to be accompanied by a regular driver’s license, typically expire in a year. If you plan on driving abroad, you need to get a local driver’s license as soon as you can.

9. Think About Working During Retirement

For some, retirement doesn’t mean not working. Many retirees enjoy volunteer opportunities and part-time jobs. Others are more entrepreneurial, interested in starting a business abroad.

If you plan on working, check ahead of time to make sure the country has no restrictions that could prevent you from either finding a job or starting your own business.

10. Plan to Stay Connected

Many people, whether or not they’re retired, find the most difficult part of living abroad is missing friends and family. Have a plan in place to keep in touch with the people you care about. Modern technology like smartphones and online video-conferencing software, such as Skype, make it easy to stay in touch virtually, but having a strong, reliable connection is crucial. Having a connection where you live is preferable, but if that’s not an option, nowadays you can access the internet in most public libraries and cafés.

You also need an emergency plan: Leave your contact information and a copy of your passport with family, and carry contact information for your family back home with you when you travel. Also, know how to reach the closest U.S. embassy or consulate and give that information to your friends and family.

Citizen vs. Resident

Almost any country you would want to live in welcomes American retirees, as long as they can prove that they have a certain minimum income from some combination of Social Security, a pension, and investment income. It varies, and, reasonably enough, countries with a higher cost of living usually require a higher income.

If you were a U.S. citizen and qualified for Social Security income, you will still be entitled to what is owed to you even if you later renounce your citizenship and move abroad.

Generally, there’s a three-stage process, from tourist to resident to citizen, though the wait time and red tape differ in every country. The U.S. State Department keeps track of the specifics regarding short-term visits. The website of each nation’s U.S. consulate is the best source for facts on residency and citizenship requirements.

Here’s how it works for most countries:

  1. An American with just a passport typically can stay in a foreign country for up to 90 days. Some expats residing in Canada or Mexico stay on for years, taking a bus across the border and back again every six months to restart the clock.
  2. Long-term stays generally require a residency visa, which may need to be renewed yearly for several years before permanent residency can be applied for and awarded.
  3. A citizenship application, in most countries, requires a longer period of residency, varying from as little as two years to as long as 10 years. Some have fast-track programs that cut the wait for people who make a substantial investment in the country.

All of the above is relatively straightforward in most countries for retirees, assuming they don’t want to take a job and can prove they have a steady income—“relatively” meaning that some countries make it tougher than others, with onerous requirements and plenty of paperwork.

And that raises the question of whether you want to be a permanent resident or a citizen of your adopted country. The benefits and drawbacks vary for each country. Note that citizenship in most European countries gains you certain rights as a citizen of a European Union member nation.

The more common choice for a retiree expat is between permanent residency and dual citizenship. Remember that neither dual citizenship nor residency gets you out of filing a U.S. tax return every year. It is both unusual and burdensome, but Americans have to pay income taxes wherever they live, and they owe it no matter where their income was earned. You may also have to file an income tax return in your country of residence, although most deduct the amount American residents pay to the U.S.

In case you’re wondering, you can relinquish your U.S. citizenship, and with it, your U.S. tax bill, but that step is irrevocable and uncommon. Midway through 2020, over 5,300 people filed to renounce their citizenship, surpassing the record-setting 2016. According to Wall Street Journal, some wealthy former Americans left due to cumbersome tax laws, including the requirement to report certain foreign accounts to the IRS. For the rest, the sheer aggravation of filing in two countries every year was a likely factor in the renunciation of their U.S. citizenship.

Roy Walsh

Roy Walsh

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