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Civil Liberties Overseas: Knowing Your Rights as an Expat

by Volker Poelzl

I recently received an interesting question in response to my article The Lure of Foreign Lands. The reader asked the following question: Of the countries that I had listed as the most attractive destinations for expatriates, which would I classify as "least intrusive" in terms of personal privacy and oppressive government regulations on its citizens.

Civil liberties are a complex issue, which span all aspects of life, from personal privacy, freedom of expression and religion, to the rule of law and regulations concerning identification cards, registration of residency, and controls impacting the business environment. The question regarding the "least intrusive" countries also highlights the perception that personal privacy, freedom, and civil liberties are influenced by personal and cultural values, and are not just determined by the laws of the land. If you perceive the right to bear arms as the ultimate proof of personal freedom, then you will feel very restricted in most countries. But many countries which make gun ownership difficult may otherwise give their citizens a large degree of personal privacy, freedom, and civil rights. So the question of intrusive government is very relative, and depends very much upon your own personal and cultural values.

In addition, the degree of freedom and civil liberties you have as an expatriate overseas also depends upon what you are planning to do. Will you open a business, buy property, invest, or retire? The business climate is very open and unrestricted in the U.S., and you will find that almost everywhere else it is much more difficult to open a business or buy property. That said, government intrusion into our personal lives has increased drastically in the U.S. since 9/11. Among the most popular countries for American expatriates, none of them allow snooping through phone records and personal correspondence, although surveillance cameras have become widespread tools, especially in the U.K.  On the other hand, in many countries, the government has a stronger presence in everyday life than in the U.S. In many European countries for example, you have to register your place of residency with the local police, and police can pull you over without any reason to check your license and vehicle registration. In some countries you have to renew your residency permit every year, which involves waiting in line at a government office and talking to bureaucrats.

In many countries, I.D. cards are issued by the federal government, as are driver’s licenses, a fact that foreigners might deem intrusive. On the other hand, the recent push by the U.S. government to mandate nationwide I.D. standards is also a move designed to give the federal government more control. Years ago travelers were able to board domestic flights without showing government issued identification. This has long since changed. In short, while government regulations have largely remained unchanged in most countries popular with expatriates, they have tightened quite significantly in the U.S. in the past decade.

Also keep in mind that personal privacy and oppressive government regulations for citizens often differ from regulations for foreign residents. No matter where you live, as a foreigner you have to deal with the immigration authorities and abide by their rules, which are usually more restrictive than those for citizens. In addition, over the past decade many wealthy countries, such as Australia, the Czech Republic, the U.K., France, Italy, and Spain have been faced with an enormous influx of foreigners from poorer countries, which has led to stricter immigration requirements. Many expatriates will discover that government bureaucracy is burdensome in many countries, and that there is a lot more red tape to buy or rent property, or to open a business.

All of the countries I listed in my article on The Lure of Foreign Lands are largely considered free, with a considerable degree of civil liberties. However, there are, of course, differences that may make one country more attractive than another. Mexico and Costa Rica probably have the friendliest immigration policies for U.S. citizens, and government regulations for Americans are not as strict as in, let’s say, Australia, Japan, or European countries such as the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Spain, or the U.K., which do not especially favor U.S. citizens. Argentina and Brazil are friendly toward expatriates with retirement or independent income, but the visa process is quite bureaucratic. 

From my own experience, aspects of civil liberties have never directly affected my choice of country. If you like the country, the people and their culture, you will simply accept certain restrictions and requirements as an unavoidable fact, and look at the bright side of living in the country of your choice.

If you are interesting in researching further the topic of civil liberties in countries around the world, you should visit the website of Freedom House. Freedom House is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting political and economic freedom around the world. Freedom House publishes an annual survey called Freedom in the World: Political Rights and Civil Liberties, evaluating the level of civil liberties in most countries. The "Civil Liberties index" measures freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion. On their website you can find details about countries of interest.

Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for He has traveled in over thirty countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research and work.

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