Retiring abroad is a trend that’s not going away anytime soon. More than half a million people are currently living outside the United States and collecting some form of Social Security benefits, according to December 2016 data from the Social Security Administration (SSA). What’s more, more than a third of Americans say a move outside the U.S. is something they’d consider. Between the ever-rising cost of living and the difficulty of amassing sufficient retirement savings, it’s small wonder that many Americans are looking ahead to retiring somewhere cheaper – and perhaps warmer.
That’s why we’re always interested in International Living’s Best Places to Retire annual list. The 2017 study is based on 24 countries measured against each other on 10 factors: buying & renting, benefits & discounts, visas & residence, cost of living, fitting in, entertainment & amenities, healthcare, healthy lifestyle, infrastructure and climate.
Also considered on the publication’s 100-point scale is safety: International Living says that “we only recommend locations that we can vouch for as being safe for expat retirees.” We checked the list against the U.S. State Department Travel Warnings and mention any key findings below. The world being what it is, street crime is a problem in all the countries, as it is in the United States. But some have other issues you should know about.
Here are this year’s picks – along with a step-by-step scenario for settling in foreign lands.
After reaching third place last year in the rankings, Mexico jumped to number one, just edging ahead of Panama. More than a million Americans live in Mexico, enjoying its lower cost of living, sunny days and proximity to the States. The weaker peso and strong dollar have made the cost of living even more appealing this year. Besides rock-bottom rent prices (Mexico’s housing market remains largely depressed from the The Great Recession) and high-quality, reasonably priced healthcare, seniors age 60 and over also enjoy money-saving discounts with the INAPAM Card, which helps savings stretch even further.
Mexico does still have issues relating to crime in certain states. Click here for the U.S. State Department’s Travel Warning, dated December 8, 2016, that replaces another warning from earlier in the year. The Department also updated its safety and security section in late July 2017 to caution tourists about reports of tainted alcohol.
Mexico requires most immigrants to live in the country for up to five years before applying for dual citizenship, but the wait is as little as two years if you are a direct descendant of someone born in Mexico or in any Latin or Iberian country. Having Social Security or savings will qualify most American would-be expats for residency.
Panama dipped down to second place this year (it claimed the top spot in 2016), but it’s still a great bargain for retirees. Pensioner discounts allow those living on Social Security to enjoy lower prices while not sacrificing the proximity to the States. Panama ranked 100 of 100, the highest of any country for “benefits & discounts.” (See Retiring in Panama: The Pros & Cons for details). What’s more, having the Panama Canal brings a high level of infrastructure and a broad international mix of people to the country that makes it especially easy for expats to fit in and feel comfortable. About 25,000 Americans do so now.
Panama also may have the world’s most enticing deal for American retirees. To qualify for Panama’s Pensionado Visa Program, you need only to prove that you have a minimum lifetime income of $1,000 a month, or $1,250 for a couple. There isn’t even a minimum age. Once you have your Pensionado identity card, you can flash it to get a 50% discount on entertainment, 30% off on public transportation, 25% off airline tickets and more. The government even waives import taxes on the belongings you bring into the country. (For more, see 6 Reasons Why Americans Retire in Panama.)
Notably, the Pensionado program does not get you on a path to Panamanian citizenship. Panama has other visa programs that do, but they are aimed at entrepreneurs and investors.
Most people know that Ecuador’s located on the equator, but they don’t realize that the location makes its weather incredibly stable year round. A range of altitudes – from the Amazon Basin to the Andes Mountains – provides climate variety. Ecuador is home to a variety of man-made environments, too: modern cities, quiet villages, swank beach resorts. The Galapagos Islands are 600 miles from the coast, while whitewater rivers plunge through the interior.
The country’s westernmost city and largest coastal resort is Salinas, with oceanfront living, open-air markets and abundant restaurants. A couple can retire well on about $1,500 a month. Health care is affordable, and expats can choose from several local clinics, or travel to Guayaquil – about a two-hour drive – for a modern hospital.
Somewhere between 5,000-10,0000 American expats live in Ecuador. (Read more in Retire in Ecuador with $200,000 of Savings?)
4. Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a popular vacation spot for many Americans, but many are finding enough reasons to stay year-round. thanks to its numerous beach towns, rainforests, volcanoes, friendly ticos (the locals) and low cost of living. For the active set, there are also lots of adventure activities, including whitewater rafting, canopy tours and nighttime rainforest hikes, to name a few. Cheap rentals (less $1,000 a month) means retirees can enjoy their lifestyle without sacrificing the basics.The country sits within the tropical zone so residents enjoy a tropical climate year-round. Parks and protected areas – which cover about 25% of Costa Rica’s land area – help protect the country’s extensive biodiversity.
It’s easy for most retirees to get residency permits and the healthcare rates second to best in the IL survey – 96 of 100. What Does It Cost to Retire in Costa Rica? will give you the details. Costa Rica ranks as one of the safest countries in Latin America, too.
Couples can live more than comfortably in Colombia on less than $2,000 a month. What’s more, it’s in the eastern time zone and Florida is just three hours away by plane. (For more, see 4 Reasons Why Americans Retire in Colombia). Colombia’s place on this list might surprise people worried about its history of drug cartel violence, but its decreasing crime rates mean it’s a generally safe destination for vacationers and retirees. Despite this (and recognizing the improvement), the U.S. State Department still issued a Travel Warning for Colombia on June 16, 2017, replacing an earlier one from the previous year.
As the only Asian country on the list, Malaysia offers high-quality food, four UNESCO World Heritage sites and a frugal cost of living. It’s also one of the few places in Southeast Asia where you can buy property freehold (Hong Kong and Singapore are the other two, says International Living). And it rates top of the survey (97) for healthcare. Retire in Malaysia with $200,000 of Savings? will give you more reasons. The U.S. State Department has security information, but no Travel warning for Malaysia. Containing about 8,000 Americans, Malaysia is also home to lots of British and Australian citizens, so English-speakers won’t feel isolated.
The 18th-century city of George Town is a top pick for retirees, with attractions that include a dozen museums, jungle parks with secluded beaches and amusement parks. Expats get together regularly for club activities, healthcare is first rate and public transportation is modern and efficient. A 900-square-foot apartment in an “expensive” part of George Town will cost about $480 per month; to hire someone to help keep the apartment clean, under $4 an hour.
Other Malaysian possibilities for retirees: Kuala Lumpur, the bustling capital, and Johor Bahru, a city that, according to Lonely Planet, has been replanted and repaved and is being “rebranded.”
Spain claimed ninth place last year, but has increased its rankings this year. Travel within Europe is inexpensive, and if you live within a smaller city, your dollars will go far. How Much Money Do You Need to Retire in Spain? will tell you how far and The Top 5 Retirement Cities in Spain will tell you where. At 98, Spain topped the list for infrastructure and rated 90 for both entertainment and healthy lifestyle. As for security, the State Department notes that “all European countries remain potentially vulnerable to attacks from transnational terrorist organizations,” but has no particular warning for Spain.
Spain has eased its dual citizenship requirements for descendants of any of the 300,000 Sephardic Jews who were expelled from that country during the Inquisition.
A low cost of living, beautiful beaches and relative closeness to the U.S. make Nicaragua a choice for retirees who can’t afford to stay in America (see 6 Countries Where You Can Live Off Social Security). Only Cambodia (99) rated better for cost of living than Nicaragua (97). In recent years the country has become more comfortable and modern, though there are still problems with crime and security, as well as an “authoritarian” government that “limits freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” according to the U.S. State Department.
If you want to be close to Spain but spend even less money, Portugal is a perfect pick, and relatively undiscovered; around 2,000-3,000 U.S. expats call it home. The other occupant of the Iberian Peninsula offers potential retirees a comfortable lifestyle, complete with sandy beaches and mountains (only a few hours apart!) and ample amounts of seafood. Low real estate prices make it easy for a couple here to afford a middle-class lifestyle, even living on a budget. At 82, Portugal has the lowest cost of living of the European countries in the International Living list (Spain is 78 and Malta, 77). How Much Money Do You Need to Retire in Portugal? will give you the details, as will the Top 4 Retirement Cities in Portugal. Portugal shares Spain’s citizenship privilege to Sephardic Jews’ descendents.
The European island chain of Malta, located in the Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa, is a hidden treasure. Retirees can expect 300 days of sun per year and 7,000 years of history to explore, plus lots of beach activity. It’s a quick flight to Paris and a three-hour ferry to Sicily. Healthcare is excellent and cheap, and Malta rated the highest of the group (92) for ease of fitting in. One reason: English is one of the country’s two official languages, along with Maltese. Malta belongs to the EU and shares the same security issues as Spain and Portugal.