Once you’re bitten by the expat, overseas bug, how do you go about choosing your best country for overseas retirement?
At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s a vital part of your relocation process. In fact, it’s so obvious I needed to be reminded of it! A few days ago I received this email from a reader:
“I stumbled on your site and was looking for info on the process you used to select Panama. For example, what other countries did you remotely and in-country evaluate. How long did you spend on your evaluation for each country. I guess I was looking for a “prepping the country selection” process as you provided for your countdown to Panama.
That’s a very good question.
I guess I haven’t written a lot about the process for choosing your new country, because mine was pretty non-standard.
Do As I Say — Not As I Do!
First, understand that our situation was dire. The financial meltdown really destroyed us, and every month we stayed in the US we were digging ourselves deeper into debt. So taking lots of extended trips just wasn’t an option.
We originally had three countries on our short list: Ecuador, Panama and Mexico. I’m also very interested in Uruguay, but it didn’t make the short list because of distance back to the US. (We have a child still in college, and my husband’s parents are getting quite frail, so the probability of having to make a hasty trip or two is a real one.)
With the drug-related brutality in Mexico in the news, one of our kids told me if we moved there she would never be able to visit because she wouldn’t feel safe. My husband was also starting to get anxious about it, so we took Mexico off our list, at least for now.
That left Panama and Ecuador.
My husband, who was initially pretty reluctant to embrace this whole move overseas thing, knows someone who does business in Panama. That gave him a comfort level with Panama which he didn’t have with Ecuador. So Panama became our choice, by default.
We did visit here last year, enough to believe we could make a life here. We don’t consider ourselves settled, at least not yet.
We’re keeping a light footprint here initially — renting a furnished house, no car — so we’re not tied down. Further exploration of the country and the region is definitely in our plans.
That was us. How about you?
If you have the time and resources to visit several countries while you still live in the US, I think it’s a better way to go. We didn’t have that luxury.
Creating Your Countries Short List
Before you can create a list of your best places to live overseas, you need to spend some introspective time (with your significant other if you have one) deciding what’s important to you.
This is a new exercise for many of us. For most of us, our choice of where to live is initially determined by our parents (we have to be born and raised someplace), then by education, employment and circumstances. Sure, a few hardy souls decide they’d like to leave the East Coast and live in sunny California or progressive Portland, but most of us just drift along. If a job sends us elsewhere, we go and we make the best of it.
So thinking about what we’d actually like is a foreign concept (yes, pun intended. Feel free to groan.)
Be brutally honest here. Living in a new country has way too many challenges to add the extra burden of resentment or anger at your partner over where you live.
If you’ve always wanted to live at or near a beach, Germany’s probably not a good choice. If you wilt in the heat, don’t consider the tropics no matter how romantic the thought of lying in a hammock sipping a margarita.
When thinking about the best place to live overseas, here are a few of the issues you need to consider:
- Geography (beach, mountain, other)
- Big city, small town or something in between
- Proximity to your home country
- Schools and childcare if you’re moving with young ones
- Health care
- An expat community
Notice I didn’t include cost of living here — that comes later.
Additional questions to ponder:
What’s really important to you, something you simply aren’t willing to give up? My husband’s an avid bicyclist, and he wouldn’t consider going someplace where he couldn’t ride. Maybe you can’t live without French pastries or live theater. Maybe you would shrivel up and die if you couldn’t watch football in real time during the pro season. If there’s something in this category, be honest about it.
There’s no such thing as the perfect country where you’ll retire overseas in perpetual bliss, but there are plenty of places in this big world where you can live a pleasant, affordable life that suits you. Once you’ve completed your soul searching and answered these questions, you can start looking at destinations.
This is the first of a 3-part series.
Anne Egros says
Very good article Susana. Whatever is the purpose of your relocation to a new country is, the same questions are valid. Regarding cost of living everything is relative and the official numbers are not always helpful. For example I lived in Tokyo several years and it is one of the top 10 most expensive cities in the world. If beef is expensive there, fish is not and overall food is not more expensive than the US if you eat what locals eat and it is healthier
You’re absolutely right about the cost of living — a lot of it is within our control, based on how we want to live. The more you live the way local people do, the better you can control your costs.
Scented Candle Man says
I stumbled across your blog. Great site. Im in a situation where I can live anywhere I want right now. I want to still call Seattle my home but would like to live elsewhere 9-10 months outta the year. Panama is a great place. I visited there 5 years ago and loved it. We just got back from the Punta Cana in the Dominican and I could crosss that off my list. Loved the resort however outside the gates I wouldnt want to. Im gonna go through your site now. Thanks!
Mexico is very safe. There’s a huge and virbrant retirement community in San Miguel de Allende.
People who think Mexico isn’t safe are those who watch too much TV and believe everything in they’re told.
Thanks for your comment. I understand that there’s a big gap between the reality of living in Mexico and the perceived reality from afar. Mexico’s a beautiful country with a lot to offer.
working traveler mike says
Just found your website. Interesting post. It is unfortunate that people put the whole country of Mexico under a bad shadow. It would be like Canadians saying the whole US is bad because Detroit has gangs.
Havent been to San Miguel de Allende, but thanks for putting it on my map!
Frank Briscoe says
Ok Susana, I have been to Ecuador, Belize, Puerto Juarez Mexico and now San Juan Del Sur, the last being my most favorite country to date, while Mexico a close second. However, they both lack one important activity for me. Just like your husband, bicycling is my life and none of these countries offer safe bicycling infrastructure. If I could afford it the Netherlands would be my choice to live and bicycle but the cost of living there is prohibitive for me. I’d like to hear from your mate as to his take on bicycling in and around Las Hablas. Thank you for helping us want a be expats find our future home.
Hey, Frank, great to hear from you!
My husband felt safer cycling in Panama than he has before or since in the US. Even though they don’t have fancy bike lanes, etc., he never worried about it.
That’s because motorists there are used to sharing the roads with all sorts of non-motorized transport, including bicycles, feet, horses, horse and buggies, cows, sheep. . . That’s not to say there are never any accidents, but they are very few and far between. And certainly never the result of road rage.
He’s ridden all around Las Tablas and most of the Azuero Peninsula, and also from Colon to Panama City. Felt very safe everywhere.
Regarding making the first move to move to a tropical country. Panama,Costa Rica, Mexico etc. Working full time with 3 years left until retirement. I’m constantly thinking about living in a warmer climate for at least 6 months out of the year. Currently in the Minneapolis area. I can’t wait to move away during the winter months.
Here is one of the big issues I have as regards the initial investigation on a tropical country. There are many sites to look at rentals ,however if you want to lease a one/two bedroom condo/house, it’s hard to find a site that specializes in short term leases say 2 months to 6 months.
Looking at leasing in a beach town area. Does not have to be on the beach….maybe a 10 min walk. Air BNB lets you look at renting but it’s hard to find a property say in the month of March (spring break). If you want to lease for a 6 month period from November through April it’s difficult to find these lease properties because of the holidays and such.
Are there any contacts/Real Estate companies you can provide that specialize in just leasing homes/condos in the areas of Costa Rica. Panama. Southern Mexico etc.
I think the hardest part of deciding to make the transition is the initial fears of arriving in a foreign country getting off the plane and deciding if you want to find some cheap motel whilst you explore the country,or preferably planting yourself in a decent house/condo for a few months while you get the feel for the climate and infrastructure.
Any thoughts you could provide on this subject as regards finding people who specialize in leasing properties would be most,most welcome.
David M. Bland
In Panama, and most of Costa Rica, you won’t find your best rental deals online. Mostly business is done face to face. While I understand it can be scary to get off the plane and not know where you’ll lay your head, that’s actually the best way to do it.
Before you go, arrange for an inexpensive hotel/hostel/B&B stay for a week or two. As soon as you arrive, start talking to everyone – hotel staff, restaurant servers, cab drivers, anyone you hear speaking English in your vicinity. . . tell them what you’re looking for. You’ll be amazed at how many people you can meet this way, and how helpful they can be. Also, if there’s a particular restaurant or bar where expats hang out, make a point of visiting there and talking to people as well.
If your destination in Mexico is one of the larger cities, you’ll likely be able to find a decent rental online. You’ll do better with a Spanish-language site than and English site. . .
Let me know how it works out!