Americans and Canadians move abroad for many reasons, including the weather, lower costs, better lifestyle, and for Americans still working, the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. Which country would be best for you?
At Best Places in the World to Retire, we have more than 500 contributors (mostly expats) who have answered almost 9,000 of the most often asked questions about moving abroad. Below you'll find what they have to say about five of the most popular destination countries: Mexico, Panama, Belize, Nicaragua and Portugal.
By far the most often asked question is, "Is Mexico safe from violent crime?" There is no doubt that the perception, especially in the U.S., is that it is dangerous to be in Mexico. However, judging from the responses from our contributors, as well as our experience after more than seven months driving thousands of miles on our Mexico road trip, I can report that if you stay out of the well-known, more dangerous areas, this perception is wrong.
Just as you would need more specifics about location when considering crime rates in a U.S. city, the same holds true for Mexico. Some areas in big cities have high crime rates but surrounding communities may not. Our contributors in the well-known expat areas like Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Ajijic, San Miguel de Allende and the Yucatan areas like Cancun and Merida report that they feel safe from violent crime, although they will also say that petty theft is a bigger concern than in most places in the U.S. or Canada.
After dispatching the safety issue, Mexico has a lot of advantages, including:
- It borders the U.S.
- Well-known expat areas have great healthcare, some rivaling the U.S. in technology but at less than a quarter of the cost.
- In addition to its famous beaches, it also has highland areas such Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende where the weather is moderate year round.
In addition, English speakers abound in the best-known areas. Mexican food can be exceptional. Prices are, by American and Canadian standards, low. A housecleaner is $2.50 per hour, a haircut is under $2.80, a fabulous all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch on a lake is $5.50 and the cost to build your dream home in Mexico is about $50 per square foot.
Although Panama is only about half the size of the state of New York and less than 1/25th the size of Mexico, Panama has amazing diversity. You can enjoy the sophistication and modern big city experience of Panama City, sometimes compared with Miami, and within just a few miles of the city center, be immersed in a thick, tropical, gorgeous jungle.
In Panama you can be on the beach at Coronado, a little more than an hour from Panama City, or up in the nearby mountains in El Valle de Anton, which is a little cooler, or in the famous expat location of Boquete at around 5,000 feet elevation, and which our contributors say has a perpetual spring-like climate. You can even find a Caribbean vibe in Bocas del Toro, which like Boquete, is located near the border with Costa Rica. Panama is narrow enough that a resident can easily surf in the Pacific in the morning and scuba dive in the Caribbean in the afternoon of the same day.
The main advantages of Panama are that it uses the U.S. dollar, has a friendly visa program, especially for retirees, English is widely spoken, and hurricanes in Panama are a rarity. Also, in many areas, Panama will be less expensive than the U.S. or Canada, although prices are rising along with Panama's popularity.
Drawbacks include that outside Panama City, where the health care is superb, and to a lesser extent, nearby Coronado, quick access to world-class healthcare can be problematic.
Formerly British Honduras, Belize is a small country just south of Mexico on the Caribbean with a tiny population of around 350,000 where English is the official language and the legal system is modeled on English Common Law. None of the more popular locations in Belize have much elevation, so the weather is universally warm. Near the sea, the breeze mitigates the heat.
If you like spectacular water, you will love Belize. The world's second largest barrier reef is just off the coast, making for calm, dazzlingly colored, warm water. The principal expat areas are San Pedro (on Ambergris Caye, regarded as one of the most beautiful islands in the world), the peninsula of Placencia, usually less than half a mile wide and about 13 miles long, Corozal, which is on a large bay near to Mexico, and the inland areas of the Cayo District, which tend to be less expensive, agricultural, and with several rivers.
Our contributors in Belize enjoy the slow, laid-back lifestyle. They also tell us that if you're into consumerism, Belize is not the place for you. There's not a single mall or franchise restaurant in the country. If you need your American brand, imported goods and the newest fashions from Paris, you may be able to find them, but they will be more expensive than in the U.S. or Canada. Also, if you need ongoing access to high-end medical care, Belize is not for you.
The prices in Nicaragua tend to be on par with much of Mexico or perhaps even lower. Contributors say that Nicaragua has the raw, natural beauty of several volcanoes and inland lakes that are largely undeveloped and not yet heavily trafficked by tourists.
This is not to say that Nicaragua doesn't have areas with creature comforts. There are several high-end resorts and residential developments and a few master-planned gated communities generally along the Pacific. These are consistent with high-quality, American and Canadian suburban living.
You can choose from the famous expat, tourist and surfing area of San Juan del Sur, which still has a bohemian, vibe; Granada, which is a colonial city with colonial architecture and a similar layout and feel; or from several beach-front communities made pretty much for U.S. and Canadian customers, all while enjoying the sun and beach of this largely undiscovered country. If healthcare is an issue for you, it would be best to live near the capital city of Managua, which has a hospital that was accredited by the Joint Commission International, an honor that is difficult to attain.
We included Portugal in our list because so many people find it so pleasant. Portugal has a pleasant climate, even more so in the famous region of Algarve, on Portugal's southern coast. Algarve has many expats, particularly Brits, world-renowned food and wine, prices significantly cheaper than in most of Europe and a relaxed lifestyle, all with good infrastructure and fairly good healthcare.
Which of these countries and regions is best for you would depend on what you like. What is undeniable, though, is that there are many options.