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Living Abroad: How to Choose the Best Countries

The Lure for Americans to Move Overseas

World Map of Expatriates Living in North and Central America Living in South America Living in Europe Living in Asia and the Pacific Region Living in the Middle East Living in Africa

The number of Americans living abroad has steadily grown over the past decade as more people have become interested in exploring another language and culture or finding an overseas job. According to the Association of Americans Resident Overseas, over 8.7 million Americans (excluding the military) live overseas in 160+ countries. While some people are transferred to an overseas post by their employer or have a job offer abroad, it can be challenging for the rest of us to figure out which country to choose. We have created this realistic guide on options to live overseas to help find the most appropriate location for you, with plenty of resources to explore the pros and cons of your possibilities.

Choose Your Goals For Moving Abroad

Before choosing a country, ask yourself about your goals and expectations for your overseas experience. Are you interested in employment, retirement, university study, a long-term language course, volunteer work, or a starting point for more extensive regional travel? Would you like to immerse yourself in the local culture, settle abroad, and open a business?

  • If an overseas job is your main objective, research where your job skills are most in demand and obtain information about employment opportunities in the destination country.

  • If you are a student, contact an exchange program sponsored by your university or offered through a reputable student exchange organization and find out which countries are available to you for study abroad. If you wish to immerse yourself in the country, learn the local language, and make connections, living with a family in a homestay is a good choice while a student. Your student visa is often an excellent opportunity to work openly or "under the table" to either live frugally or obtain extra spending money.

  • If you have time on your hands but little money set aside, volunteer work with selected programs such as Volunteers for Peace or WWOOF is another option.

For a successful stay abroad, it is highly preferable to match your destination with your personal interests and professional or educational goals:

  • Costa Rica may be a peaceful retirement location with a large U.S. expatriate community. Still, if you want to combine Spanish study with experiencing indigenous culture in more affordable countries, you are likely better off going to Ecuador, Belize, Guatemala, or many parts of Mexico.

  • If you seek overseas employment and expect the same quality of life as in U.S. cities, you might be happier in a more industrialized nation than a developing one. Many who seek to live in relative comfort manage to be transferred by multinational companies.

  • If you are adventurous, one option is to travel worldwide and look for informal work without a work permit. Many college graduates obtain a TEFL certificate since learning English is still a huge priority in so many parts of the world, and many will hire you and sometimes even provide work permits or advice for long-term stays. However, this option has become more complicated in recent years because many developed countries have been flooded with illegal immigrants and have started to crack down on illegal workers. Some less developed countries are under pressure to limit any long-term workers.

  • If you are seeking a place to retire, consider the cost of living relative to your savings and other factors covered in our column on retirement overseas.

Money Matters and Considerations Abroad

Regardless of whether you plan to study, volunteer or work abroad, the economic condition of your destination country is an important consideration. When I first went to Brazil as an exchange student, the Brazilian government kept the new local currency more robust than the U.S. dollar, dramatically reducing purchasing power and affecting the country's entire year. It would help if you considered financial factors in any plan. As the U.S. dollar has fluctuated against some currencies recently, many prospective expatriates seek new ways to make their money last and have a sense of security. Financial security often means seeking out an affordable destination, especially for those who may not be living on a significant income, such as retirees relying on savings, social security, and pensions.

When researching the economies of different countries, remember that the exchange rate is not an indicator of the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar. Currency exchange rates are subject to market demands and government policies, but you should be most concerned about the cost of living primarily. A better indicator of how much your U.S. dollars or your overseas salary can buy in your country of interest is to research the cost of accommodation at your destination. The sidebar at the end of this article lists resources to help you compare the cost of living in different countries and cities.

Unless you transfer overseas through your employer — a widespread and often desirable occurrence when working for multinational companies with multiple country branches — your income abroad will most likely not be as high as in the U.S. When I lived in Lisbon, one of my house-mates was a student from Italy. He was looking for part-time work during the school year, but the pay was so low that he finally gave up. In Rio de Janeiro, on the other hand, several peers worked as part-time English teachers because the income was high by local standards. I worked in horticulture in New Zealand, earning a relatively low wage. Still, the cost of living in the countryside was also minimal, and I could open a savings account and put money aside every month.

High inflation is another factor to weigh. Living in a country where prices increase daily can be challenging when you are used to low inflation in North America.

The Political Climate in Your New Home Country

In addition to economics, you should also evaluate the political climate in your country of interest. Anti-American and anti-Western sentiments can impact your stay abroad (such has rarely been the case in my travels), so you should research before making a final decision. Developing countries may have unstable or even collapsing governments, which fail to provide essential services to their citizens and cannot guarantee the rule of law. Living in a socially, economically, and politically stable country will make your stay overseas much easier and more enjoyable. Remember that the mainstream commercial media at home often exaggerates dangers abroad for its purposes. Most citizens worldwide can separate the perceived external politics of your country of origin from your personality. You will likely be treated with utmost hospitality provided you follow the "Golden Rule" of travel and living abroad, which we call responsible travel or just plain respect for your hosts in a host country.

Choosing the Exotic or the Familiar?

When you narrow your choice of countries, it is helpful to consider the countries that already interest you or where you have enjoyed a vacation. Try to travel the world, or desired regions, extensively enough to know which countries have the right feel for you. Ideally, you will want to live in a destination offering the intangible sense that it is where you belong, a place you can call home, and where you will be happy long-term. The intangible can sometimes outweigh the tangible pros and cons, and through the power of will, you can often find a way to live in a location if you so desire. Having friends or family abroad may be another reason for you to favor one country over another. You might even be interested in searching for your roots to live in your ancestors' homeland. This way, you are already familiar with the culture, language, and people.

On the other hand, some of us are captivated by exotic and unfamiliar locations. Tropical locales such as the South Pacific Islands and the Amazon first attracted me to living abroad. But soon after arrival, I realized that living in vastly different countries had a price; the heat, the climate, exotic diseases, foreign foods, and a very different way of life made adjustment difficult. Unless you have travel experience in unfamiliar cultures, choosing a country with a culture that is not so drastically different from your own might be a good idea, especially where climate, food, and local customs do not pose a significant challenge.

Many European countries share some cultural traits with North America, and moving to Europe is less challenging for most than moving to Japan. Do your homework and read as much as possible about your future destination. Take a language course before you go if you can. Having some idea of the local language will make your adjustment much easier, and you can make local friends more quickly without relying on expats.

Distance to your home country can be another crucial factor when selecting a new destination. Moving to Mexico from North America is much cheaper than, let's say, moving to Argentina, especially if you are shipping household belongings. Proximity to your home country may also be vital if you must return home regularly to tend to business or visit family. Traveling long distances is more expensive, more exhausting, and more time-consuming. However, in the case of the situation in Mexico, for example, you also have to weigh in essential safety concerns as the country's drug cartel war continues unabated. No foreign destination is safe, and it is vital to get the exact location(s) of a country's potential drug war and find out if your preferred destination has an acceptably low rate of violent crime and lies outside significant drug trafficking routes.

Popular Countries for U.S. Expats

By researching country-specific information for’s Living Abroad section, it became clear that about a dozen countries are exceptionally well suited for American expatriates. However, to be transparent, all countries obviously have their pros and cons. I base my list on the considerations mentioned in this article and the countries' overall popularity among Americans. We have also considered factors such as how accessible the local culture is for foreigners and whether the locals are friendly and welcoming toward Americans and citizens of Western countries.

For the update of our top choices, we have also considered how the global economic downturn and its consequences have affected countries worldwide to this day. Most countries that have been popular with American expatriates for many years are experiencing higher unemployment, especially in Europe, making it much more difficult for Americans to find jobs and obtain work permits. In addition, there is a movement to enforcement of more protectionist employment policies such as aspects of the Schengen Agreement. The rise of the remote work that can be carried out by digital nomads or independent contractors now often favored even by large corporations is a very positive development for many prospective expatriates. Given the economics and unemployment in many countries, our shortlist focuses on countries that are not only beautiful destinations and friendly to the U.S. but are also affordable and have job or business opportunities for expatriates looking for a new permanent or part-time home abroad.

Nevertheless, we do not make cost a primary consideration, as there are experts in low-cost living abroad who cover this subject well and have a different take on what constitutes a great destination to be a long-term ex-pat. We are not advocates for profiting from the poverty of others or deals to be found due to a weak currency unless the money goes directly back to the local community after paying your expenses.

In the spirit of balance, since long-term destinations are not perfect in every way, we have alphabetically listed the pros and cons of ten countries. Of course, there are other countries not listed here (note the absence of many Scandinavian countries that figure high on many lists for potential expatriates, as well as the many "cheap" living destinations which we believe can have other political, ethical, and other lifestyle drawbacks) that may offer you equal or greater appeal.

In the end, your new home country should just "feel right" to you, in our view. Cheap can be an important consideration, but thinking only in terms of a budget sometimes only justifies a move to a destination if your options are limited.


Pros: Similar culture as North America; English-speaking; popular with students; great travel destination; friendly people; opportunities for students; highly skilled professionals, retirees, and business investors; working holiday visa for young Americans; close to beautiful and increasingly popular and long idealized land of New Zealand.

Cons: Quite a distance from the U.S.; high cost of living; expensive air travel; popular immigrant destination for skilled workers from all over Asia who compete for selective jobs.


Pros: Great cultural experience due to the ethnic diversity and generally very friendly people; a considerable economy; opportunities for students, English teachers, professionals, and retirees.

Cons: Few Brazilians speak good English, and Portuguese is quite a bit more difficult to learn than Spanish; no longer as affordable; quite far from the U.S. for visits to relatives. Significant poverty and violence in big cities.

Costa Rica

Pros: Close to the U.S.; a sizable expatriate community for a small country; popular with students, entrepreneurs, and retirees; an excellent destination for those interested in ecotourism and general outdoor lovers.

Cons: A much higher cost of living than neighboring countries, such as Mexico, can be problematic. Some destinations may be too Americanized for some expats, though many who travel and live in the country say that finding authenticity and traditional culture is still not an issue. Nearby Nicaragua and Belize are less expensive options.

Czech Republic

Pros: A beautiful and relatively inexpensive country featuring cathedrals from all periods, pristine countryside which many locals enjoy via bikes and walks, centrally located to visit most of Europe by car, safe, great beer, a large expat population, lively and open-minded locals.

Cons: Need help getting permission to work, as with most EU countries.


Pros: A classic destination for American expats and students historically and even currently, even if costly, especially Paris. Great cultural wealth and lifestyle; opportunities for students, artists seeking inspiration, retirees, and entrepreneurs.

Cons: Difficult for non-Europeans to get a residency permit; lengthy bureaucratic procedures to establish a business; strict financial and professional requirements for the self-employed and entrepreneurs; high cost of living for retirees on a pension in U.S. dollars in cities such as Paris and Nice. Paris is top 5 in terms of cost of living.


Pros: Another favorite destination for many Americans and Brits, where there is a large expatriate community. A very rich culture and history. Extremely hospitable people. A great destination for students.

Cons: Few employment or business opportunities for foreigners; lengthy bureaucratic procedures to establish residency.


Pros: Close to the U.S.; rich culture, excellent food, history, friendly people, beautiful land; great for students, retirees, and entrepreneurs; relatively inexpensive. Over 1,000,000 American and other Western foreigners in the country should you seek out the companionship of fellow expats.

Cons: Despite those who insist otherwise, safety concerns exist in some locations due to ongoing violent conflict between drug cartels — though often exaggerated due to the preponderance in specific areas. America is certainly not safe in many locations.


Pros: Uses the U.S. dollar as currency; English is more widely spoken than elsewhere in Central America; well-developed expat community and infrastructure; relatively close to U.S. with many direct flights; pleasant climate, diverse tropical ecosystem; a great destination for entrepreneurs, especially in the tourism sector, as well as for the many retirees who now reside there.

Cons: Culturally, a land that is not as attractive as other countries in the region, some say subjectively, though the countryside offers excellent ecological diversity.


Pros: A warm climate next to the Atlantic, beautiful coastline and cities, rich culture, low crime rate, inexpensive cost of living, proximity to Spain, easier requirements for entry and permanent relocation, as well as ease of temporary residency for digital nomads due to cost.

Cons: Like much of Europe, plenty of bureaucracy, inundated with tourists in the summer, language not commonly taught outside of the country.


Pros: Affordable and welcoming destination for foreign retirees and entrepreneurs; basic English widely spoken; pleasant climate; great natural beauty, cultural traditions, and attractions. Beautiful locations, from cultural centers like Chiang Mai to the islands. A favorite first stop for youth traveling in Asia, as well. Relatively friendly visa conditions. Great culinary tradition.

Cons: Quite distant from the U.S. with few cheap flights; fewer opportunities for students than in many other countries apart from teaching English as a graduate. Quite crowded with tourists and digital nomads in some parts. Language not easy to learn for a Westerner.

Note: Many of the Baltic countries are becoming very popular due to the low cost of living, smaller crowds of tourists, rich traditions, relatively unspoiled lands, and often less stringent visa requirements, especially for digital nomads.

Taking the First Steps for Your Move

Once you know where to go, you can move on to the next step. Contact the consulate or embassy and find out how easy it is to get the appropriate visa for your country of interest. There are different procedures to obtain the proper visa or residency permit. Still, many countries allow foreigners to visit between three and six months without a special visa and do not require papers for volunteer work or language courses. For university study, business, and employment, however, you must apply for a visa in most countries. Find out the requirements and how long it takes for a visa and residency permit to be processed so you can plan your departure accordingly.

The resources below will help you understand how your country of interest compares to others in essential areas such as cost of living, health, human rights, economic and political stability, and more.

Resources to Compare the Quality of Life in Countries and Cities Abroad

Note: UBS, The Economist, Forbes, Internations, the World Economic Forum, and others all have worldwide cost of living comparisons and "best of" lists available in changing locations on their respective sites.

Association of Americans Resident Overseas has a mission to "create and maintain ties among American citizens and residents of countries other than the United States, with no regard for their political preferences or party affiliations." The site offers much useful information, advice, and resources.

Numbeo is the world's largest database of user-contributed data on costs of living worldwide, with a report on the quality of living by country and even city, with the option to make comparisons in the currency of your choice.

Expatistan is a free collaborative database that compares the cost of living in cities worldwide.

HSBC Expat Explorer Survey — How countries compare is the work of a vast global bank that provides survey results on its website based on answers by over 20,000 people, emphasizes finances, and measures the quality of life by country. The website allows country comparisons and provides tax guides for those living abroad.

World Happiness Report is updated yearly by "leading experts across fields — economics, psychology, survey analysis, national statistics, health, public policy and more — describe how measurements of well-being can be used effectively to assess the progress of nations."

Very detailed World Health Organization reports reveal comparative living standards.

Heritage Foundation: Index of Economic Freedom by Country. Very politically conservative site with the corresponding ratings you might expect

Human Development Index, United Nations Development Program (UNDP)

Human Rights Report, Amnesty International

Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International

For an amusing and pleasantly ironic read pertinent to choosing a destination to live abroad, try The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, by prolific author and journalist Eric Weiner.

Browse the website for more information on working, studying, and living abroad.

The Joys and Challenges of Living Abroad

On my extensive travels worldwide, I have met many American expatriates with different reasons for living abroad. I met U.S. retirees in Mexico pursuing their interest in art in picturesque colonial towns; I met English teachers in Europe and South America who use their teaching skills to travel the world and live in different countries, and I met entrepreneurs and business people eager to settle in a new country and start a business. What unites them all is the desire to experience different cultures and expand their horizons — to learn and to enrich their lives with new experiences.

But as much as these experiences are enriching and inspiring, expatriates still face many challenges during their time abroad, from an adjustment to a foreign culture to the language barrier, bureaucratic hurdles, moving logistics, visa requirements, and much more. Although the adjustment to an unfamiliar culture is an inevitable part of living in a foreign country, there are many ways to make the transition easier. Most importantly, we must be well-informed and prepared to live abroad successfully. Information is vital to a smooth adjustment to another country and culture. It is essential to familiarize yourself with your host country before you go. Read about history, economy, and culture to know what to expect. Get background information, learn the language, talk to someone who has been there, and visit expatriate websites, discussion forums, and the many new social media sites where expatriates exchange all kinds of information about living in a foreign country.

We encourage you to visit our sections devoted to Living Abroad and Living Abroad by Country. You will find a plethora of helpful information for current expatriates and those planning to move and live abroad.

 Related Topics
Living Abroad by Country
 Related Columns
Living Abroad: How to Choose the Best City for You
Taking a Fact-Finding Trip Before Moving Abroad
Finding Work Overseas
Finding Work in Europe
Work Permits Abroad
Finding a Home Abroad
Retirement Overseas
Health Insurance Abroad

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