One of the most important factors that will determine whether or not you are happy somewhere is the quality of the people already there. Will you fit in? Will you make friends? Will you have the type of social life you want?
The website Best Places in the World to Retire posts over 7,000 answers from more than 500 expats to the most often asked questions about moving abroad. One of the questions: "What are the expats like where you live?"
Among the common themes were that expats tended to have more of a desire for adventure than others. This was especially true for retirees. They were also more likely to develop wide-ranging networks of friends and to be receptive to different cultures and experiences.
Sandi Vandiver, who moved from Texas to Mexico seven years ago, contrasted the more stimulating life she chose in Mexico with what she imagined she would have encountered in the U.S. "If I were in the U.S., I would have had to buy a little condo and hope to be invited for dinner on Sunday," she said. "Here, I could be doing something eight nights a week. If I were to live in the U.S., I would just waste away."
Jason Waller, who moved from Canada with his young family and now lives in a well-known expat beach community in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, said that people who move to Mexico are experiencing different cultures" and meeting "new people."
"A lot of people back home think we're crazy for moving to Mexico," he said. "But the people saying that never go anywhere. They don't experience life."
Waller added that "if you are someone who is not really interested in meeting new people, you're not going to move to another country where you don't know anybody."
Per capita, expats do more volunteer work than others in their home country. One of the reasons is that they tend to see more of a need and to be good-hearted people who want to help. Another reason is that volunteering is a way to meet people in their new home and become part of a community. "Expats support charities and fundraising events and build a social life through the people they meet there," said former Houstonian Howard Oldham, who now lives in Belize.
Bob Hamilton, who moved from Canada to the island of Ambergris Caye, Belize, said that many fund raisers occur at bars and that these events help people broaden their personal networks. "You can spend two weeks here in Ambergris Caye and go home with a dozen new friends," he said.
Penny Barrett, who moved from Michigan to Boquete, Panama, told us that expats often have a wider range of friends and acquaintances than they might otherwise. Barrett said that when she recently was at happy hour with six friends, there was only "one other U.S. citizen and we ranged in age from 24 to 80 years old. That is what makes living in Panama unique."
Expats are quick to help other expats. Some of the survey respondents said that the expat community was a tight, supportive community. "There are many things to keep us occupied like the Book Club, 'Dinner and a Movie Night,' Friday night Mojitos on Calle La Calzada, and more," said Janice Gallagher, formerly of Dallas, now living in Granada, Nicaragua. "We help each other with problems and laugh together at our silly mishaps."
Julie Speier, who moved from Ohio to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, said that expats "really watch out for each other. We have a strong support system for one another, especially for young mothers like me.
For example, she said that "in the U.S., you have AAA car service, but here in San Juan Del Sur, you don't need it. If your car breaks down, you call any of your friends and they will help you change a tire, or the first passerby will stop and help you."
Chris Leonard often visits Belize from the U.S. to be with his father, a developer, said that that "everybody takes care of each other. If somebody has problem, medical or otherwise, there would always be somebody who would step up and help out."
Socio-economic status is significantly less likely to be a factor in expat communities. "It just doesn't matter how much money you have here, said Linda Jensen, an American who now lives in Boquete, Panama. "We don't have that big social thing that we have in the U.S. In Panama, people of different levels of income mix more readily."
Natives say that expats tend to be open and friendly. "You can approach them without the fear of being looked down upon," said Isha Edwards, who works for a developer in the beach town of Pedasi, Panama. She added: "Recently, I saw an expat on the street who was reading a book. He just said hi to me, and we start talking."
There are differences among expats, sometimes based on where they live.
David Drummond, who used to live in Michigan and now makes his home on Ambergris Caye, said that expats on the island are laid back. "We have a Caribbean lifestyle, so it is very tranquil," Drummond said. "No one is on a rush to be anywhere. Very few people show up on time for anything, but that is accepted because it is sort of the norm."
In contrast, Patrizia Pinzon lives in Casco Viejo, a World Heritage Site colonial city founded in the 1600s that is now part of the very modern Panama City. She told us that Casco Viejo offers a European lifestyle and that the town attracts a certain type of person, whether they are from abroad or not. They enjoy a "human scale, the connection, the walking around everywhere, the aesthetic of Roman buildings and the ambiance. It's romantic."
Mike Cobb, whose company is developing a very large master planned community on the beach west of Managua, Nicaragua, said that the type of expat he sees now in Nicaragua has changed. "Just as in the U.S. when the West was explored, the settlers followed the pioneers, so in the same way now in Nicaragua we are seeing a second wave of folks who want the amenities and infrastructure standard of North America," Cobb said.
In the end, most people said that expats lead more interesting lives. JB Seligman, a self described "blue water yacht captain, Texas cowboy, radio personality and longtime marketing/advertising business owner" now living in the funky Caribbean community of Bocas del Toro, Panama put it this way: "There is nothing better than sitting down and talking with somebody and figuring out how they got here. There is always an interesting story."