Retirement Destinations - Chart
The 2016 Annual Global Retirement IndexResults by Category
Baltimore, MD - Retiring abroad is easier and more affordable than ever before. These days it really is possible to spend your days relaxing beneath palm fronds on a Caribbean beach, enjoying farm-fresh produce in a mountain haven with year-round spring weather, or wandering the storied streets of a historic and cultured European city…or all of the above.
But with so many choices available, finding the right one can seem daunting.This year, International Living scored each country across 10 categories used to compile our most comprehensive Index yet. Here’s a breakdown of the big hitters in each category.
1. Buying & Renting
In this category, we look for the best bang-for-your-buck real estate to rent or buy abroad. How easy is it to find a rental? And how affordable is it to buy if you want to settle down?
Ecuador tops this category in the Index. In the colonial city of Cuenca, you can rent a two-bedroom apartment for $500 or less, while the same property in the popular mountain town of Cotacachi will set you back $450 to $600 a month (although you can find rentals for much less if you shop around). Even in the capital, Quitowhere you have great healthcare and amenities within easy reachrentals can be had for under $1,000.
Ecuador also has stunning beachfront properties for sale and rent, as expat Denver Gray has found out.
“Here you can find ocean-view apartments from under $100,000,” says Denver, who lives in the coastal city of Salinas. Denver himself bought a four-bedroom oceanfront condo for $220,000. “For half of the year, we have all of the windows open in our condo to enjoy the cool breezes and the sound of the surf,” he says.
“In the same building where my wife and I live, right on the Malecon (beachfront promenade), there is a fully furnished one-bedroom apartment, with a view of the ocean and the Salinas Yacht Club for only $97,000. You’ll find 1,300-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom units, also on the Malecon, for just under $150,000.”
With its highly fertile farmland available at incredibly low prices, Ecuador is a perfect choice if you want to homestead in retirement. “In the fertile valleys of Ecuador’s northern Andes region, you can pick up productive agricultural land for as little as $500 an acre,” says expat David DeChambeau. “Compare that to the U.S. Midwest, where you can easily pay more than $6,000 an acre.”
Right across our beat, though, you’ll find fantastic real estate deals. Take Nicaragua, for example. “Back home in San Diego, I never dreamed that I could afford to own something with an ocean view,” says IL Nicaragua Correspondent Bonnie W. Hayman. “There you can pay $1.5 million for something like that. Yet in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, I own a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house, on an acre with an ocean view, which cost just $132,000.”
Malaysia also scored strongly, due to the great-value rentals you can find there, as IL Malaysia Correspondent Keith Hockton can tell you.
“My wife Lisa and I pay $950 a month for a 2,100-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bathroom condo, with gleaming marble floors in the living areas, high ceilings throughout, and polished parquet floors in the bedrooms,” he says. “There’s a shared gym, a landscaped garden, a golf chipping green, and a swimming pool.”
2. Benefits & Discounts
There was only going to be one winner in this category.
With the Pensionado Visa, Panama offers the best retiree benefits on our beat. All you need to do is prove you’re receiving a pension of at least $1,000 a month and be over 18 years of age.
You’ll be eligible for 50% off entertainment (such as cinema tickets, concerts, plays, and the like), 25% off electricity, 25% off restaurants, and 25% off airline tickets bought in Panama. You can also get 15% off hospital bills, 20% off medical consultations, and 10% off prescription medicines, among many other goodies.
Terry Coles and her husband Clyde take advantage.
“My husband had a cold and went to see an English-speaking doctor for $6. He picked up three prescriptions for $25 after the office visit,” she says. “Our first electric bill was $16.80 for the month. Meals out at nearby restaurants are $3 to $5 and a hotel room with our Pensionado discount of 50% off is about $30, which includes a nice breakfast.”
Ecuador, too, has some great retiree benefits, which IL Cuenca Correspondent Edd Staton knows well. “Those 65 and over immediately qualify for half-price public transport,” he says. “As a senior, you can receive a monthly refund of up to $204 for the IVA (value-added) tax charged on many purchases. And many businesses, like banks and grocery stores, have special lines just for you!”
3. Visas and Residence
This one’s new. Whether it’s a short-term stay or permanent relocation, this category looks at the availability and ease of visas and residence. Once again, Panama tops the table.
The process of acquiring Panamanian residence is both cheap and easy, making it simple for you to become a resident in the country.
“The Pensionado Residence Program is the most popular option for potential expats for many good reasons,” says IL Panama Editor Jessica Ramesch. “It is highly effective in drawing people to Panama because, in addition to providing a permanent residence solution, it also entitles retirees or Pensionados to a host of money-saving discounts.”
As well as the Pensionado visa, Panama also offers a Friendly Nations visa (open to U.S. citizens) which lets you work or start a business in the country. Although you need a business or investments in Panama to qualify for this, plus at least $5,000 in a Panamanian bank account, you don’t need to live in the country full time. And after a few years you can even apply for citizenship and a second passport.
Mexico also offers easy residence for North Americansif it didn’t, how could the nearly one million U.S. citizens who live there do it? With a visitor permit, you can spend nearly six months in the country: plenty of time to suss out great retirement spots like Tulúm and San Miguel de Allende. If you want to stay longer, Mexico’s residence visas are extremely popular and straight-forward.
“You can get a temporary resident visa that’s valid for up to four years,” says IL Mexico Editor Glynna Prentice. “And you only need to show a monthly income of about $1,300.
“But the real winner is Mexico’s permanent visa. You have to show a slightly higher incomeabout $2,100 a month. But you can get a permanent visa right from the get-goyou don’t need a temporary visa first. It’s a one-time application process, and the visa is valid indefinitely. And with either residence visa, those aged 60 or over can get a pensioner’s card and qualify for discounts from 5% to 50% on a whole range of goods and services.”
Like Panama, Costa Rica also offers a Pensionado visa for which you need a monthly retirement income of $1,000. You can also bring your spouse and dependents under 18 years old to the country.
If you’re retiring to Malaysia, the MM2H (Malaysia My Second Home) visa is an attractive option. This visa lasts for 10 years, and it allows you to bring your spouse and children to Malaysia, as well as open a business there. To apply, you need to prove a monthly income of at least MYR10,000 (around $2,450).
4. Cost of Living
From groceries to utilities, from rent to transportevery expense involved in living a comfortable retirement was factored in here.
Of all the countries in the Index, Cambodia won for having the lowest cost of living. And when you hear some of the prices being quoted by expats there, it’s not hard to see why.
In Cambodia, you can fill yourself with delicious food for less than $5. ©International Living
In Cambodia, you can fill yourself with delicious food for less than $5.
“Apartment rentals in nice areas are available for as little as $250 a month,” says expat John Grady, who lives in the capital of Phnom Penh. “But what really amazed me was the cost of eating out. You can fill yourself with barbequed meats, grilled fish, or Khmer soup and endless bowls of rice and noodles for under $5.”
Also finishing strongly was Nicaragua, which overall is among the most affordable countries on our beat. Here you can live a great retirement for $1,200 a month. This includes renting within a short walk of stunning Pacific beaches for only $400 a month, and great food (fish, pizza, lasagna, Mediterranean salads…you name it) for less than $10 per dish.
Another heavy hitter in this category was Peru, a South American expat haven on the rise. IL’s David Hammond was hugely impressed by what he saw there.
“Of all the many places I’ve visited in Latin America, Peru has by far the most affordable cost of living,” he says. “A couple can live in a city that has it all for $1,000, including rent.” That small budget will cover you for renting a two- or three-bedroom apartment with a terrace ($335 a month), water ($10), electricity (around $27) and cable and internet ($50 combined) as well as everything else you might need.
5. Fitting In
What really makes for a great expat experience is the friends you make in your adopted home country. This category looks at how easy it is to integrate into your new home, whether you’re retiring as a couple or flying solo.
The small Caribbean island of Roatánas well as being home to a mostly English-speaking populationhas a large and concentrated expat community. And it offers plenty of social gatherings you can get involved in. As a result, making new friends isn’t hard here, and that’s why Roatán comes out on top of the Fitting In category.
“The community is tight, but there are constantly new people coming and going as well,” says IL Roatán Correspondent Amanda Walkins of the island’s expat population. “This makes for a fun place for expats, including singles; there are many single expats here.”
Belize, with its English-speaking population and established expat communities also makes it easy for new arrivals to fit in. Lynn Ann Snellman and Tony DiPiazza, from Michigan, found this out when they moved to Placencia. “We socialize with both expats and native Belizeans. We have many more acquaintances than we did in the States. In Belize it is easy for neighbors to become friends.
“In Belize, we don’t hesitate to stop by strangers’ homes to find out more about a feature or plant we admireand we are typically warmly welcomed.”
Across the Atlantic, Ireland has long been admired for its people’s warmth and friendliness. This friendly, English-speaking population means you’ll have no trouble fitting in on the Emerald Isle. “The greatest Irish asset I can think of is its people,” says expat David Dilliard, who lives with his wife Shannon in a period home on the southern coast. “You may be taken aback when asking a stranger for directions. They have told us where to buy the best foods, which restaurants to try, who is a good dog groomer, and any number of other tips all as if we had known them forever.”
But don’t think that a country whose first language isn’t English will be any more difficult to settle in. Places like Ecuador, Panama, and Mexico, as well as housing lots of friendly locals, also have big communities of like-minded expats you can mingle with.
Bill Riordan was blown away by the warm and welcoming locals in Cuenca, Ecuador, the city he now calls home. “To describe the friendliness and kindness of Cuencanos would require a whole other article,” he says.
6. Entertainment and Amenities
“I crave variety, and here I have it all,” says IL Panama Editor Jessica Ramesch of her home, Panama City. “Past weekends have found me enjoying live jazz at the Danilo Pérez club in historic Casco Viejo, English-language plays at the Ancón Theater Guild, gourmet cuisine at renowned restaurant Maito, and even hand-rolled cigars at The Country Store, in the former Canal Zone.”
Panama and Malaysia shared honors in this category…for good reason. Both are foodie havens with great opportunities for indulging your taste buds. There’s no shortage of fun cultural events and activities to keep you occupied, as well as terrific beaches and verdant rainforest for those who prefer the great outdoors.
“It [Malaysia] has everything that Canada has to offer but at a fraction of the price,” says expat Jim Herrler of his exciting new life with his partner Ellen Ma in Southeast Asia. Here, they can catch movies in English from only $3 and browse through ritzy shopping malls.
“The local food is simply outstanding, and we discover new places every week,” says Ellen. “A round of golf back home was $72, whereas here it’s $30. A tennis pro could cost up to $100 an hour back home, whereas here it’s $15…another reason why I’m taking lessons twice a week.”
As healthcare costs in the U.S. continue to spiral upward, one of the main questions any aspiring expat asks is, “Can I get great healthcare when I move overseas?”
The simple answer is yes…and without breaking the bank, either. Measuring the quality of healthcare is difficult, and it’s hard to put a number on it. We can, however, put a number on the price of medical procedures. And these costs (as well as quality) helped us score each country.
Colombia and Malaysia are neck-and-neck in this year’s index, providing the best healthcare of any South American or Asian countries on our beat. In both countries, you’ll find clean, excellent hospitals, highly-trained doctors, and very affordable care.
“Medical tourism is booming here,” says expat Lauren Brown, who lives in the Colombian city of Medellín. “Not only is the care inexpensive, but the equipment and hospitals are state-of-the art. A full dental cleaning with x-rays and checkup only cost me $30.”
“The healthcare here is as good as you’re going to find in North America, and probably better,” says Canadian expat Bonnie Cahusac, who also lives in Colombia. “I have three doctors and I have all of their numbers in my phone. I would call them in a heartbeat if there was anything wrong.”
IL Malaysia Correspondent Keith Hockton, meanwhile, has nothing but good things to say about Malaysia’s healthcare.
“Prices have risen in the last few years, but the cost of seeing a specialist is still just $20,” he says. “You don’t have to call ahead for appointments to see your general practitioner. “There are numerous JCI-accredited hospitals in Malaysia, and most of the doctors have been trained in the U.K. or U.S. I’ve yet to find one who doesn’t speak English.”
“High-quality, low-cost healthcare is one of the most attractive aspects of living in Costa Rica,” says our Costa Rica Editor Jason Holland. And with hospitals and medical facilities to rival the best in North America for a much lower cost, it’s not hard to see why so many expats agree.
“Major surgeries, including heart surgeries, knee and hip replacements, and cosmetic procedures, are half or a third of the U.S. cost,” says Jason. “It’s no wonder 50,000 patients, mostly from North America and Europe, come to Costa Rica as medical tourists each year.”
8. Healthy Lifestyle
“We eat food with a lot less preservatives. The water doesn’t have fluoride in it. We walk a lot more and get more fresh air. It’s been great for our health,” says expat Rob Evans. Rob has lost 50 pounds since moving to Costa Rica’s Central Valley with his wife Jeni in 2014.
Readers tell us all the time they are looking to escape from polluted North American cities and processed North American food. They want to find fresh air, farm-fresh produce, and clean living overseas.
Finding a healthier retirement abroad is a key consideration for many expats. And while many countries on our beat scored strongly in this regard, Costa Rica came up trumps.
And that’s not surprising. From the shores of Lake Arenal to the sands of the Pacific Coast to the lush forests of the Central Valley, Costa Rica offers huge scope for living a healthy, outdoors lifestyle. A great climate for growing fresh produce ensures that plenty of it is readily available. (Farmers’ markets and produce stands across the country give you lots of opportunities to fill your fridge for under $40 a week.) The great weather also means you can get out and about at any time of year. And many expats report eating more healthily since they arrived.
Colombia cities like Medellin are home to world-class healthcare facilities. © International Living
Colombian cities like Medellín are home to world-class healthcare facilities.
“We eat a lot more fruit and vegetables here rather than the processed food we bought in the States,” says expat Greg Seymour, who lives near the town of Grecia with his wife, Jen. Since settling in Costa Rica, Greg has taken to exploring the mountains and forests around his home, and feels all the healthier for it.
“[Moving here] has worked wonders for our physical and mental wellbeing.”
You can live a healthy lifestyle in many of our indexed havens. In countries like Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador, you’ll find plentiful fresh air and produce. “The great climate, fresh air, fresh food, and walking two to six miles a day has greatly improved our health,” says Denver Gray of his new life in beach-town Ecuador.
“Easy access to the U.S. is another huge bonus of living here,” says expat Lauren Brown of her new home, Colombia. “Direct flights from Medellín to U.S. cities are now frequent. In fact, I often find cheaper round-trip flights from Colombia to the U.S. ($350) than what it used to cost to fly from San Francisco to Boston to visit my family (often $400 to $600).”
We live in a more connected world than ever before. Air travel means it’s never been easier to access retirement havens around the world. You can pick up the phone and call relatives half the world away, or Skype them for some face-to-face conversation. All of this has made retirement overseas more convenient and comfortable than ever.
As well as direct flights to the U.S. we looked at things like internet speed, cellphone coverage, and quality of roads.
Unsurprisingly, European countries like Spain, Portugal, France, Ireland, and Malta came out on top. All of these enjoy modern road networks, extensive public transport coverage, and internet service comparable to that in the U.S. But closer to home, Latin American countries like Panama have invested heavily in infrastructureand it shows.
“There are well-established expat communities across the country, where you can enjoy high-speed internet, cable television, reliable electricity, and potable water,” says our Panama Editor Jessica Ramesch. “No other country in Central America offers better overall infrastructure.
“The weather in Cuenca is perfect for me,” says expat Bill Riordan of Ecuador’s welcoming climate. “I don’t like hot weather. I went to a party at the home of a Cuencano family I know; for the evening, I put on a light sweater and was very comfortable. The winter months of July and August are cooler, but compared to the harsh winters in Connecticut, the climate here is just fine.”
Bill’s sentiment is mirrored by many expats in Ecuador, a fact that has seen Ecuador top the Climate category in the 2016 Index.
Although resting on the equator, the highlands of Ecuador (home to popular expat destinations like Cuenca, Cotacachi, and Vilcabamba) also lie at several thousand feet above sea level. This combination guarantees a year-round spring like climatenever too warm, never too cold. In Cuenca, for instance, the high’s rarely reach above the 70s F while lows scarcely drop below 50 F.
Because of this, expats here can get out and about year round while also saving a pretty sum on A/C and heating bills. This is also true for countries like Colombia and Panama. The varied weather (warm on the coasts, cooler in the highlands) means you’re guaranteed to find a climate to suit your taste.
“Since Colombia lies so close to the equator, temperatures remain the same year round,” says expat Michael Evans. “And, you can find a climate that suits your comfort level. If you like hot, humid weather, one of Colombia’s valleys, or perhaps the Caribbean coast, might fit the bill. If cooler weather suits your fancy, you’ll find all types of cities and towns throughout the Andes Mountains.”
“I love the warm climate,” says Kris Cunningham, who lives in David, Panama. “I also love no hurricanes, Midwest tornadoes, blizzards, icy roads, and other weather-related challenges I’ve dealt with in the past.”
Are You Safe Overseas?
As you look through the countries on our retirement index, you may find yourself asking, “Yeah…but are these places safe?”
All the places you read about in International Living and covered in the Annual Global Retirement Index are places that our writers have been. Many of them live in these locations and have for some time. All of our editors and correspondents are based outside the U.S. And none of them would be living where they do if they didn’t feel it was safe.
Indeed, many expats actually say they feel safer abroad than they did back home.
“Friends, family, and well-meaning strangers sometimes express alarm at the idea of a female expat living in small-town Cambodia,” says Natalie Phillips. “But overall, I feel safer in Cambodia than I do in most places in the U.S.”
All this being said, it’s still important to remember that crime happens everywhere. So wherever you go or live in the world, apply the same common sense you would in any North American city. If an alley looks dark and dangerous, don’t go down it. Don’t flash large amounts of jewelry or cash when you’re out and about. If you’re out after dark, or don’t know where you’re going, call a cab instead of walking. Or at least walk with a group.
In short, take basic precautions wherever you go, and you can be one of the thousands of expats already enjoying a happy and safe retirement overseas.