If you’re considering retirement abroad, you need information, and you need lots of it. But more than that, you need guidance on how to interpret that information. That’s what we’re here for, and that’s why we’ve compiled the 2021 Annual Global Retirement Index: to help you with the exciting business of choosing where in the world will best suit your needs.
When it was first conceived, our Retirement Index was our special way of coping with an embarrassment of riches. At that stage, IL had already spent over a decade exploring all manner of dream locales. The result was a huge and exciting variety of choice and opportunity. Fast-forward to 2021.
Three decades have gone by, during which our scouts have scoured every corner of the globe many times over. The result is a much bigger and ever-growing selection of outstanding destinations where you can live a healthier and happier life, spend a lot less money, and get a whole lot more.
But how do you choose?
The Retirement Index is the most comprehensive and in-depth survey of its kind. It’s the best way we know of to sift through the wealth of opportunity the world offers, bring some order, and help you pinpoint the best destination for you.
Our index is informed by hundreds of opinions and real-life experiences—information—compiled by our trusted sources in the best retirement destinations across the globe. We think of it as a tool for you, our reader. A way for you to quickly compare and contrast your best options and begin to narrow down your choices.
We have our people out there pounding the pavement in attractive overseas communities we know you should consider. They’re reporting back to us with insights, and information about what’s really going on. They’re not beholden to relocation service providers or real-estate agents or tourism boards or economic development organizations. They work for you.
In no way is our Global Retirement Index meant to be a scientific output. It’s designed to be a useful tool for people, constructed out of real-world, on-the-ground information interpreted through a lens of well-informed experience and opinion.
Our sources are living in the places where they’re gathering their intelligence. And we trust their judgment. If they say the healthcare is good, or that a meal for two in a nice restaurant costs $20, then we believe them.
Our intention with this index is that it be genuinely useful. We’re not looking for random input from random people around the world—you can get that with a simple internet search. Instead, we’re in the business of providing sound recommendations about a refreshingly limited number of options.
Beyond data, it offers information, opinions, perspective and guidance.
What has their research revealed about the best retirement havens in 2021? Read on…
By Wendy Justice
“You’ll know within 36 hours of coming here whether you love it or not,” says 65-year-old Redwood City, California expat Deb Aronson. “I knew within three months of being in Vietnam that this would be my home. It captured my soul.” That was 21 years ago, and she’s still under the spell. She’s one of a growing number of expats who lives long term in Vietnam.
I’ve lived here for 10 years now—in the coastal resort city of Nha Trang, in the progressive and delightfully livable city of Da Nang, and currently in Hanoi, Vietnam’s 1,010-year-old capital city. When I’m not at home, I’m often exploring other parts of the country—the wild, remote mountains of the far north, the pristine beaches of the central coast, the waterfalls and pine forests of the Central Highlands, and the skyscraper-filled skylines of Vietnam’s rapidly developing cities.
Vietnam’s meteoric rise has been nothing short of phenomenal. It’s hard to imagine that this war-torn nation of 40 years ago has developed into the world’s fastest-growing economy in 2020. The signs of growth are everywhere: high-rise condos and gated communities with private yacht clubs and international schools, shiny new hospitals with all the latest equipment, controlled-access freeways, and even the occasional Rolls Royce.
Despite the development that you see in every town and city, Vietnam hasn’t sold its soul. Ancient traditions, like the burning of offerings on the full moon and exotic ceremonies honoring the Mother Goddess, are still very much a part of life here. The ornate mansions left behind by the French during their lengthy occupation house embassies, government offices, and fancy restaurants now. The many parks and streets lined with century-old shade trees—also a legacy of the French—give a certain European grandeur to Vietnam’s urban areas. Glitzy shopping malls with the latest fashions and electronics compete with cavernous traditional markets selling gallon-size jugs of ginseng, traditional medicines, and $2 jeans.
Elegant restaurants serving fresh lobster and Wagyu steak sit alongside humble street food stalls selling spring rolls and chicken soup. The rising middle class have no issues taking a meal at either place; they’re happy to splurge on occasion, but nothing quite compares to sharing a humble kettle of “hot pot” in the company of friends and family.
Vietnam may be growing in leaps and bounds, but for retirees looking for a delightfully comfortable lifestyle, it remains one of the least expensive countries on earth. Couples who have made their homes in the mountain town of Dalat say they’re not sacrificing a thing to stay within a budget of $800 per month or less, and expats in Nha Trang rave about spending $1,000 per month and “living rich.” Even in the most expensive cities—Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)—you can live comfortably for less than $1,500 per month.
70-year-old Texas native Larry Chilcoat has lived in Dalat since 2018. He says, “I’m able to live well on just my social security alone. My monthly budget, with travel and everything, is $800 to $1,000 per month and I don’t hurt for anything–I have everything that I want and need. Things are so reasonable here.”
The Vietnamese language is notoriously difficult to learn. Fortunately, the Vietnamese know this and are thrilled if you attempt to speak just a few words of the language, no matter how badly you might mangle it. Many locals speak excellent English, especially in urban areas. Vietnam scores well on the English Proficiency Index—higher than most other Asian and even Latin American countries. They are also eager to practice their English skills; many friendships are formed through informal language exchanges.
That’s one of the things that makes Vietnam stand out from other countries: it’s an easy place to make local friends. Age isn’t a barrier here, either. One retired couple I met in Da Nang said that they were invited to their neighbor’s high school prom. My best friend is my daughter’s age. Whether they’re hoping to practice their English or simply curious about seeing a new face in town, the Vietnamese aren’t shy about initiating conversations. They’ll ask your name, your age, whether you’re married and if so, how many children you have and their ages. Before you know it, you’re invited to their house for dinner or to visit their ancestral home in the countryside.
Many expats are drawn to Vietnam for its beaches, which stretch more than 2,000 miles along the entire length of the country. Places on the central coast like Da Nang, Hoi An, and Nha Trang have exceptionally pretty beaches, while offering residents the benefits of city life, too. In other places, such as the south-central village of Mui Ne and the southern island of Phu Quoc, the laid back lifestyle is centered around the coast.
Wherever you are in Vietnam, you’re never far from quiet, rural roads, stunning mountain scenery, and tiny hamlets where life hasn’t changed much in the past century. It’s a country that invites exploration and adventure; scenic wonderlands like Halong Bay and Sapa, minority villages overlooking terraced rice fields that extend to the horizon, and the world’s largest caves attract tens of thousands of visitors.
Vietnamese cuisine is delightfully regional, with savory broths in the north, spicy noodles in the south, and incredibly delicious dishes and specialties that are found in only one town or village in the entire country. The food is fresh and healthy, with complex flavors expertly blended to create unique dishes. The country is also famous for its coffee—strong, rich, and locally grown, it’s a source of pride for the Vietnamese, who are its biggest consumers.
Vietnam is a regional travel hub. Several international airports serve regional destinations, while airports in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City offered flights to all major global destinations, including direct, non-stop flights to the U.S., and likely will again, once borders reopen. Budget carriers like VietJet Air, Pacific Airlines, and Bamboo Airways offer ridiculously low promotional fares, while the signature carrier, Vietnam Airlines, has full-service flights.Get Your Free Report on the World’s Best Places to Retire:
By Mary Charlebois
Sitting right at the heart of the Mediterranean, Malta blends the best of southern-European graciousness with one of the best qualities of life to be found in Europe. First-World standards of service and infrastructure, a wealth of historical and architectural treasures from its eons of history, and the sparkling Mediterranean—all in a country one-tenth the size of Rhode Island—ensure that this tiny island will keep you occupied.
Malta has three islands, Malta, Gozo, and Comino. The three islands have a total of 122-square miles, with a population of just over 500,000 people. Malta and Gozo are populated, while Camino is virtually uninhabited, having only 1.35-square miles of land.
The weather is stable and the same everywhere in Malta. The average temperature is 72 F. Malta has one of the highest numbers of sunshine hours per year in Europe. Blue skies appear most every day. Cool north-westerly and dry north-easterly winds make life sweet. Malta’s ancient cities and villages were laid out to catch the prevailing breeze. Natural air conditioning flows down narrow streets, cooling apartments and houses through windows and vents in the sandstone.
Whether it’s a lazy day on the beach or an afternoon exploring, there is plenty to see, do, and taste. Explore megalithic temples, bronze-age burial sites, age-old salt farms, spectacular churches, museums, and fortified cities. Immerse yourself in local fiestas and celebrations for crops, fishing, seasons, Village Saint Day, and more.
Local, fresh, high-quality food is the standard in Malta. A trip to the market will seem a bargain. Supermarkets carry a wide variety of local and imported food. Better yet, are village shops, bakeries, greengrocers, fishmongers, and butchers. Prices are up to 25% less than in the U.S.
Meals in cafés and restaurants cost less than in the U.S., too. From traditional street food to fine European dining, the quality is excellent, and the value is remarkable. A street food traditional pizzette lunch and a local Cisk beer will run around $2.60. A three-course dinner with a bottle of local wine and dessert in a village café will cost about $30 per person.
Housing in Maltese cities is more expensive than in the countryside. Harbor or beachside living will cost a bit more. A modern one-bedroom apartment, fully furnished, including utilities and Wi-Fi, can run as low as $460 per month. A fully furnished four-bedroom classic villa with a pool, gardens, and stunning views is closer to $1,930 a month. There are bargains to be found on Gozo, especially for long-term renters.
These are small islands so a car really isn’t needed. Public transportation in Malta is efficient and inexpensive. A monthly bus pass is $26. Lower rates are available for seniors and residents. Round-trip ferry tickets to Gozo are $6.15. Permanent residents pay $1.50. Ferries are free for permanent residents 60 and over. Taxis, car rental, and rideshare transportation are ubiquitous.
Malta has modern, high-quality healthcare. It’s a popular medical tourism destination. Maltese citizens have a choice of free public healthcare or paid private facilities and physicians. Permanent residents can take advantage of discounts available in the private sector with the right type of insurance.
Malta is a dual-language country, both English and Maltese. English is taught in schools and spoken by everyone. Maltese is a Semitic language heavily influenced by a mix of Arabic, Italian, English, and a bit of French. Maltese language classes are readily available in local schools.
Permanent residency is easy to obtain for 12 months at a time. The status can be obtained by non-E.U. citizens with an application and a small fee made in person in Valletta. It can be renewed each year.
One of the best reasons to live in Malta is its location. It’s 60-miles south of Italy, 176-miles east of Tunisia, and 207-miles north of Libya. A short flight away is—Greece, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Spain, France, and many more. This tiny island nation in the center of the Mediterranean and the crossroads of history is surrounded by Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. All are a ferry ride or a short flight away.
Malta is ideal for travel to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. But the best part will be living the charming, easygoing Maltese way of life.
By Tuula Rampont
France is a dynamic, diverse country that offers retirement options for every taste and budget. If you’re a fan of fine European-living, look no further than this gourmet and cultural gem. From the flowing lavender fields of Provence to the charming cafés of Paris and the stunning scenery of the Brittany coast, opportunities for a rich, fulfilling retirement can be found throughout the country.
While France keeps pace with modern times, much of its attractiveness lies in the time-honored traditions practiced throughout the country. Long lunches with fine bottles of wine, or picnics among the local vineyards, are examples of the joie de vivre that comes with living in France. Life is never rushed, and great care is taken to ensure that each day is lived to the fullest.
You’ll find it at your local village café, where friends share a café au lait and a croissant before heading out to do their morning shopping. A visit to the farmers market is one of the most important stops of the day. Market stalls are piled high with the freshest seasonal fruits and vegetables—each beautifully displayed with the finest local products. No detail is overlooked. The cheesemaker (fromagerie) spreads out several goat cheeses prepared at a nearby farm, while the baker (boulanger) sets up a selection of freshly-baked fare—rustic baguettes, flaky pain au chocolats, and specialty bread like black-olive filled fougasse (a pretzel-like specialty from the south of France). Each artisan takes immense pride in their work, as they have done for generations. The wine merchant (cavist) can speak for hours on the importance of location (terroir) when it comes to grape-growing and will make sure you have the perfect wine pairing for your meal. The French passion for cuisine is infectious, and life in la belle France will provide you with access to its many gourmet pleasures.
Although it all may sound a tad sophisticated, enjoying the French lifestyle doesn’t have to be expensive. While retiring in one of the country’s larger cities (Paris or Lyon, for example) will be a costlier option, France is full of affordable regions. A couple can live comfortably for $2,083 to $2,483 a month—with some retirees living on less than $2,000. The real day-to-day savings comes from housing costs, where, in certain areas, you can find two-bedroom, one-bathroom homes for under $150,000.
While you can hit on these bargain prices in different pockets around the country, the most popular destinations (which combine attractive real estate deals with a high standard of living) include Normandy, Brittany, the Dordogne, and areas within Occitanie (formerly the Languedoc).
Healthcare costs are also a huge factor when considering a move to France. Frequently cited as one of the top healthcare systems in the world, residents enjoy high-quality care at cut-rate prices. After living here for three months in the country, expats are eligible for universal coverage. Under the French system, members are reimbursed 70% of doctor’s visits and up to 100% on prescription drugs. Given that a visit to the doctor is $29, out-of-pocket costs are around $9—a 70% discount. Prices are fixed by the government, so you’ll pay the same $9 to see a doctor in Paris, Nice, or Strasbourg. There are no age restrictions or pre-existing condition limitations, everyone is eligible for healthcare. While you’ll pay a small percentage of your annual income to join, passive income (pensions and social security benefits) is exempt from the charge due to a tax treaty with the U.S.
Besides its tempting lifestyle and impressive social system, France is a traveler’s paradise. Each region is more beautiful than the next, and with the country’s efficient, high-speed rail service, exploring the best of France is only a train ride away.
As one of the world’s most captivating cities, Paris may be a pricey retirement choice, but it makes for a wonderful travel stop. From world-class cuisine to classic bistros and head-turning fashions, the City of Lights is one of the top draws for considering a move to France. And, it’s all a lot closer than you may think. Aix-en-Provence, a popular retirement destination in the south of France, is less than four hours away by TGV (high-speed) train.
To the east, Alsace and Lorraine are refined regions that captivate with their cozy, flower-laden villages and half-timbered homes. A hop, skip, and a jump from the German border, the cuisine is hearty and the people gracious and welcoming.
History buffs will be drawn to the seafaring regions of Normandy and Brittany. Beyond a rich, cultural heritage, these maritime strongholds provide some of the most picturesque scenery in all of France. Beautiful seaside towns like St. Malo and Dieppe are delightful getaways and tempting retirement locals.
The sun-drenched regions of southern France have elevated easy-living to an art form. Splash out like a celebrity at lavish Côte d’Azur resort cities like Nice, St. Tropez, and Cannes or head to the “other” south of France—Provence and the Occitanie regions. Here you’ll find France at its most open and exuberant. Leaning heavily on Spanish influences, the university towns of Toulouse and Montpellier are full of the “fiesta” attitude. Life is meant to be lived out-of-doors, and you’ll discover residents soaking up the sun on café terraces around town—a chilled glass of rosé and a few spicy tapas make for the perfect southern happy hour.
Many other fascinating areas exist for travel or retirement. Bordeaux and Burgundy attract wine-lovers from near and far, while the Loire Valley and the Dordogne offer stunning castle-filled views and lush, romantic landscapes. In France, there’s no shortage of things to keep you busy and you’ll find an endless list of hobbies and activities to take part in—cooking lessons, arts and crafts, outdoor clubs, and volunteer opportunities, to name a few.
Whether retirees decide to settle along the beaches of the Mediterranean or take up residence in a charming hilltop village lost in the vineyards of Provence, France provides an idyllic retirement for those seeking the best of European living.
By Keith Hockton
Cities with a buzz, idyllic beaches, islands that seduce the senses, and some of the most pristine ancient rainforests in Southeast Asia—this is Malaysia. And these are just some reasons why I call it home.
It has everything. Its weather is a tropical 82 F all year round and its beaches, islands, and jungles are pristine. It has some of the region’s best street food, great restaurants, bars, shopping malls, and movie theaters—and it’s all affordable.
My wife, Lisa, and I vacationed in Malaysia in 2008 and at that stage, we were taking at least two holidays a year somewhere in Asia. When we got back and did the sums we realized that we could actually live in Malaysia and vacation back home, effectively reversing our situation and saving a heap of money. We started to make plans to do just that and moved to Penang in early 2010.
Malaysia’s an easy place to make friends and integrate as English is the unofficial first language, so you don’t have to learn another language here if you don’t want to. Malaysian law is based on the British system and all road signs are in both English and Malay, which makes driving around easy. Lots of expats live in Kuala Lumpur and Penang and numerous organizations here can help you get settled and integrated.
On $2,500 a month, a couple can live extremely well, rent in a modern high-rise with a pool, a gym, 24-hour gated security, covered car space or two, a shared communal area with a barbecue, and it will cost between $750 to $1,000 per month. For that price, you will get a modern 2,300-square-foot condo with three or four bedrooms, three to five bathrooms, and a balcony overlooking the ocean. If you don’t care to live with a view, or by the beach, you can rent a two- or three-bedroom place for about $550 to $650, which means you could easily live on less than $2,000 a month.
As for healthcare, when you compare surgery prices between the U.S. and Malaysia, the benefits are obvious. More than 1 million foreigners seek treatment in the hospitals in Penang and Kuala Lumpur every year. There are specialists in every hospital, but unlike in the U.S., you don’t have to wait for months to get an appointment. Just turn up to the hospital, register, then take a number and wait your turn. If you are then referred to another doctor or need to get an X-ray or scan, that will also happen on the same day in the same place.
Prescriptions in Malaysia cost a fraction of what you pay at home. But it’s not just the cost that’s attractive; it’s the service. The pharmacists, like the rest of Malaysia’s medical staff, are well trained and informed. Malaysians are friendly people, but it’s the genuine interest that they take in you, no matter how small or large the issue, which impresses. It takes you back to a time when personal service meant something. That same service is alive and well here.
There are direct flights to more than 30 different countries from Kuala Lumpur and Penang international airports. The country makes a perfect base from which you can explore the innumerable natural, historical, and cultural treasures that Southeast Asia has to offer. The proliferation of cheap Asian airlines in recent years has made it easier (and more affordable) than ever to explore Thailand, Indonesia, India, and Japan. In Malaysia, Asia is truly at your doorstep.
There are plenty of international grocery stores around as well, Tesco is one of the more popular ones, and you don’t have to forfeit your little tastes of home, like good cheese and French wine. In all the major cities, there are movie theaters playing the latest Hollywood flicks, and fantastic air-conditioned shopping malls to get your retail fix.
Making friends and meeting new people in Malaysia is easy. The locals are kind and curious about what expats and tourists think of their country. They are proud of being Malaysian, and second to asking where you are from, is the question, “have you eaten yet?” Food is a crucial part of the culture throughout Malaysia, so it isn’t uncommon for your taxi driver, store clerk, or hairstylist to tell you where to go for the best plate of noodles.
By Donna Stiteler
Ecuador is the land of diversity. Whether you want to live, vacation, retire, or simply relax in Ecuador, you’ll find the perfect combination of climate, culture, and affordability to make your dreams come true. It’s a country Anthony Bourdain described as “a republic on the equator lying on the west coast of South America and is the 2nd smallest country on the continent. With 1,200 miles of beach, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes, and the Galápagos Islands, it is one of the most ecologically diverse places on the planet.”
Ecuador is a largely undiscovered country not yet gentrified but still offering the conveniences of modern living including high-speed fiber optic internet, American dollar currency, temperate weather, good public transportation, and affordable healthcare and housing. It has a tranquillo culture where manana means sometime in the future, and people welcome each other with cheek kisses and deep hugs. It’s often described as a trip back to the 1950s, only now the indigenous men in tribal dress pulling donkeys on long ropes are talking on iPhones. Walk down any major city street and you will see a mix of indigenous, Spanish descendants, mixed ethnicities, North Americans, and Europeans.
Because of its unique geological topography with the equator creating temperate weather, you can live on the beach and enjoy cool sea breezes which makes the weather in the 70s and mid-80s. Or settle in the Andes, where the equator places the mountains closer to the sun, making even locations at 8,000 altitudes produce weather in the 60s–70s F.
Visit the beaches and you can sit on the shores of Puerto Lopez and whale watch while you enjoy a pilsner and eat freshly made ceviche in beachside canopies. Venture north on the coast and you’ll encounter small sleepy coastal towns that attract expats wanting to escape the rat race, surfers, and hippies riding bicycles in towns like Montanita. Further north is the launching point to explore the Galápagos Islands and its famous blue-footed boobies and giant green tortoises. On the southern coastal tip of Ecuador is Salinas, a modern oceanside town known for its party bars, seafood, and year-round fiestas.
Head inland and you’re in the Andes, where you can zip line over mountain valleys, white water raft, get purified by Shamans, and shop for colorful textiles loomed by the indigenous. Many expats settle in Quito or Cuenca to enjoy the 16th century Spanish colonial and 18th century French Republican architecture which earned these cities UNESCO Heritage site designations. Both these colonial towns offer modern conveniences and have a booming tourist industry. Their stone-laden streets are lined with shops, chic bars, and restaurants tucked into scenic historic buildings.
Go east into the Amazon rainforests and you can paddle down the Puyo river where you’ll see the indigenous tribes who live on the river with their children, who hoist blow dart guns to test their aim.
Expats are scattered all over Ecuador depending on their lifestyle choices. Larger expat communities are in Salinas, with its beaches lined with modern condos; Cotacachi, a small sleepy village where craftsman make everything from leather goods to alpaca ponchos; Cuenca, the modern Andean town which is the cultural center of Ecuador, where music, art, and New Orleans-style architecture attracts visitors from around the world; and Vilcabamba, the home of the Valley of Longevity known for its indigenous centurions and laid back expats who sit outside at cafés trading philosophies.
While I appreciate the natural beauty and the mix of indigenous, Incan, and Spanish culture, one of my favorite benefits is the affordable lifestyle. There are few places where living is as affordable as in Ecuador. There is something for everyone, regardless of your budget. Consider that you can own a home on a Pacific Coast beach or a condo with great views in the Andes for less than $150,000. Rentals are plentiful and affordable too with a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo available in downtown Cuenca for $500.
A couple can live here for anywhere from $1,650 to $1,825 a month, depending on location and lifestyle.
Since the land produces excellent food, mostly with year-round growing seasons, prices at local mercados are so low, it is difficult to carry more than $15 worth of fruits and vegetables. Household help is available for $20 per day, and services like pedicures and haircuts are just a few dollars. No need for heating and cooling bills in most of the country, and you can live most places without a car, paying 30 cents or less for buses, and $2 to $5 for cab rides.
There are tight-knit active expat communities and many activities to get involved in—day trips to nearby towns, card games, dinner clubs, trivia, art classes, hikes in the Cajas, and long lunches with friends. Every day I get up and have a choice of what I’d like to do. Living in Ecuador has given me the retirement I could only have dreamed about if I had stayed in the U.S.
By Terry Coles
It’s no wonder that Portugal has topped the charts for the best places to retire through the years. This tiny country in the southwest corner of Europe has something for everyone. Vibrant cities full of Old World charm, miles of golden sandy beaches, green, rolling hills, some of the best healthcare in the world, low cost of living, and safety.
But for me, the best part about living in Portugal is the people. The Portuguese people are warm, friendly and greet everyone with double-cheeked kisses. Since English is taught in the schools, many Portuguese speak some English, which makes retiring here a little easier.
Last year my husband Clyde took our car into a service center for an oil change. To pass the time he went next door to a family-run café for a cup of coffee. The lady of the house was in the next room preparing to serve lunch to her family and insisted that Clyde join them. Since he had already eaten, he declined but had to smile about her generous offer.
If you are looking to retire in a city full of Old World charm, check out Lisbon. The city comes alive with colorful tiles, museums, palaces, nightlife, and a tram system that navigates the steep, cobbled roads. Take a deep breath and inhale the sweetness of the pastries that are all around. Sample an original custard tart in the famous bakery of Belem that has been baking these delectable treats since 1837.
Head north to visit Portugal’s second-largest city, Porto. Famous for its production of port wine, stately bridges, a colorful riverfront area, university vibe, and tours along the Douro river, there is much to explore. Porto also has an international airport, one of three in the entire country which makes it easy to come and go.
Looking to retire and live without a car? Then city life in either Lisbon or Porto might be for you. Portugal has an excellent long-distance bus and train system also making it easy to visit other areas of the country.
South of Lisbon is the Alentejo region that includes the cities of Beja and Évora. The largest and most rural region of the country, it is famous for the fields of wildflowers, stately cork oaks, historic towns, and a sparse population. Life here is slow, winters are cool, and summers are hot and dry.
The southernmost region of Portugal is the Algarve. Known for its Atlantic beaches, fishing villages, golf resorts, water parks, hot, dry summers, and tourists. Due to its long history of British tourists coming here on holiday, English is widely spoken.
So, how much do you need to retire to Portugal? Although it depends on many factors, you can estimate that you can live on about one-third less here. A couple can live comfortably, but not lavishly in Portugal on $2,500 per month. If you want to live in Lisbon, Porto, Cascais, or the Algarve, you should bump that number up to $3,000 or more.
My husband Clyde and I have called Portugal our home for over two years now. We began life here one hour north of Lisbon near the city of Caldas da Rainha. For just $400 per month, we rented a fully furnished, three-bedroom home. The house offered views of lush, rolling hills and fertile farmland that we loved. But the winters were too cold and wet for us, so we moved further south.
Now we live in Vilamoura, an unincorporated area near the city of Quarteira. Here we rent a two-bedroom condominium in a gated complex with a pool for $1,030 per month. We love Portugal and have never regretted our decision to move here.
By Nancy Kiernan
Located at the northern tip of South America, the gateway country of Colombia is where the Pacific and the Caribbean collide with the Andes mountains and the Amazon rainforest. It’s a country that is more beautiful, dramatic, and diverse than nearly any other. It offers colonial towns and thriving cosmopolitan cities; places to enjoy the mountains and Caribbean beach towns to soak up the sun. Just three hours from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Colombia welcomes nonstop flights into its major cities of Bogotá, Medellín, Armenia, Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Cartagena, and Cali.
Colombia offers something that will appeal to just about everyone. You will find that Colombia is a more developed country than most in Latin America, with the infrastructure, modern products, and services you’d expect in a country on the move. Colombia is no longer Latin America’s best-kept secret because more and more expats are moving here to start a new life in this beautiful country…either retiring or continuing to generate an income.
Colombia provides high-quality healthcare at a low cost with easy access for expats. I spent 30 years working in healthcare when I lived in the States, so I know good healthcare when I see it. The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks Colombia’s health system at number 22 in the world, far better than Canada at number 30 and the U.S. at number 37. Colombia is home to 24 of the top 58 Latin American hospitals. Four of them are Joint Commission International accredited hospitals. Two are in the capital of Bogotá, one is in Medellín, and one is in Bucaramanga.
Medellín is one of the fastest-growing expat havens in Colombia. Due to the near-perfect climate, flowers are constantly in bloom and dot the streets with color year-round. Spend just a few hours walking around the city and you will see why it is nicknamed “The City of Eternal Spring.” This is what first drew me to the city. I lived in Maine for 27 years before I moved to Medellín in 2012, and I am ecstatic to announce that I have not had to deal with snow since my move.
If you want hot and tropical, consider retiring to the lovely Caribbean coastal cities of Santa Marta or Cartagena. These cities are havens for sun and sea worshipers. The clear, tranquil waters off the beaches offer scuba divers the opportunity to spend hours exploring the coral reefs and photographing the large variety of vibrant-colored tropical fish, who have made their homes in the wrecks. Or spend hours soaking up the sun on the sandy beaches.
Eddie Echeverri opened the Coffee Tree Boutique Hostel in the quaint town of Salento, within Colombia’s coffee triangle. He says, “for tourists, they kill three birds with one stone in Salento. There is colonial architecture, coffee farms, and then one thing that no other town has, even other colonials: Valle Cocora. That’s the number one attraction. It’s a beautiful hike of five to six hours that takes you through a striking landscape. I haven’t met anybody who wasn’t impressed by it.”
Visiting Colombia is simple. You can come for 90 days with just your U.S., EU, Canadian, or Australian passport, and then extend for another 90 days. Any longer than that and you will need a visa. Retirement visas are relatively easy to get, require proof of at least $750 monthly Social Security income, or $2,500 from a private pension or 401(k), and are issued for up to three years.
Retirement dollars go much further in Colombia. A couple can live in many cities around Colombia for $2,000 per month or less. Of course, your cost of living will depend on your lifestyle and where you choose to live. I can tell you that my living expenses are 60% less than they were back in Maine. Just the fact that I don’t have to pay heating or cooling costs has saved me about $3,400 per year alone.
Michael Huseby freelances as a copywriter for clients around the world from his home in the coffee triangle region. “My modern, top-floor apartment in Manizales, Colombia—with a gym and a balcony—costs $500 per month. I found this accommodation through Airbnb, and in my experience, long-term rentals on Airbnb tend to have reasonable rates in Colombia. Many of the country’s larger cities also have English-language websites dedicated to helping expats find furnished houses and apartments.
“Other living expenses are likewise significantly cheaper than in the U.S. In Manizales, a movie theater tickets cost $2, beer at a bar costs $1, and a crosstown taxi rarely costs more than $5. Meanwhile, health insurance premiums run up to 70% less than in the States.”
The dark days of Colombia’s past are gone, and it has been transformed into a country that is thriving. One of the best things about the country is the warm, welcoming Colombian people. Don’t let a lack of Spanish keep you from trying out life here. As the expression goes, “You don’t meet a Colombian…you meet the entire family.” Here you’ll always feel part of the community.
By Jason Holland
Mexico has been a retirement haven for residents of its North American neighbors to the north for 50, 60 years. More than 1 million Americans and a half-million Canadians call the country home today, living there either full-time or part of the year (often in winter, to escape cold weather). This makes Mexico one of the most popular—if not the most popular—expat destinations in the world.
That makes your transition to a new life in Mexico all that much easier. This large expat community is very welcoming to newcomers, and there is no shortage of activities, clubs, events, happy hours, and more to take part in. you can easily meet new people and make friends. Plus, because of its proximity and trade and cultural ties to the United States, you’ll find that much of what you find on store shelves, on restaurant plates, on TV, and elsewhere is familiar to you. And you have modern conveniences like a well-maintained highway network, cellphone service, high-speed internet, including fiber optic, cable and satellite TV, and any other amenity you might want.
Yet, at the same time, the distinct culture of Mexico is still very much alive. With its traditions, celebrations, and holidays very much in evidence throughout the year. The Mexican people have a real zest for life, with plenty of singing and dancing in the streets, welcoming attitudes towards new neighbors, and a live and let live attitude.
Oh, and don’t forget the food, which comes in as many varieties as their distinct regions. It’s not just tacos, although they are all very delicious. You have ceviche and other seafood on the coasts, the marinated roast pork cochinita pibil of the Maya people in the Yucatán, hefty tortas (sandwiches) at street stalls, and grilled corn slathered in mayo and cheese and sprinkled heavily with chile powder. And that’s just a small taste of real Mexican cuisine.
Those who move to Mexico are drawn by a multitude of other benefits too.
A retired couple can live well in Mexico on a fraction of what they might spend back home. Cost of living is, of course, very dependent on specific people and their lifestyle, but on average, you could spend under $2,000 per month per couple—for all expenses, and have a life filled with fun, no scrimping necessary. This is possible because of low-cost real estate (to rent and buy), affordable food at the market and in restaurants, cheap transportation, low-cost medical care, free and affordable entertainment options, and more.
Residence is easy to qualify for and obtain. The application and approval process is streamlined, much of it is online, and you can secure residence in a matter of a few months. You start with an initial appointment at the Mexican embassy or a Mexican consulate in your home country. There are dozens of consulates in the U.S. You can make an appointment online and then bring in documentation to prove your home country citizenship, marriage (if applying with a spouse), and income. You finish the process at the immigration office nearest your new home in Mexico.
There are two types of residence most expats apply for. Temporary residence requires an income of $1,600, or $82,000 in the bank. (These amounts vary based on the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and Mexican peso.) Some consulates require that the income comes from Social Security, a pension, or some other guaranteed source. Some are okay with investment or other forms of income. You can be a temporary resident for up to four years at a time. At that point, you can re-apply for temporary residence or convert to permanent.
For permanent residence, which you can apply for right out the gate, you must have $2,000 in monthly income, or $102,000 in the bank.
Once you have either form of residence you are free to stay in Mexico as much or as little as you want. There is no minimum amount of time required to stay in the country, except you can only renew your residence in Mexico.
One of the major benefits for folks of retirement age in Mexico is the widespread availability of high quality/low cost healthcare. In one of the government-run healthcare systems, INSABI, care is actually free to Mexican citizens and foreigners with temporary and permanent residence. There is also another government program, IMSS, that provides coverage (but excludes pre-existing conditions) for $40 per person per month.
There are also private doctors (of every specialty), clinics, and world-class hospitals with all the modern equipment throughout the country, including several that are Joint Commission International certified, which is the gold standard in healthcare. You can pay cash at private facilities or use local or international insurance. Costs are a fraction of what you’d pay in the U.S.
Plus, because Mexico is so large (it’s about three times the size of Texas), it has a great diversity of climates, landscapes, and lifestyles. You can be in a world-class big city, rural village, colonial town, funky beach town, or bustling resort area… You can be in a condo or villa on the beach, high in the cool mountains, off-grid, and in the middle of the jungle… You can enjoy heat, humidity, and sea breezes on the coast. Temperate climates in the Colonial Highlands… the dry heat of Los Cabos… or the southern California “perfect” climate of northern Baja.
With so many locations to choose from, there really is something for everybody in Mexico. And no matter where you go, you can expect a comfortable life of friends and fun, along with a no-hassle residence process, warm weather, beautiful landscapes, modern conveniences, quality healthcare, and more.
By Jessica Ramesch
Panama has ranked at the top of IL’s retirement index many times for many reasons. Even after all these years, the country consistently delivers when it comes to overall value. This is particularly true for anyone looking to stay in the Western Hemisphere. Panama offers ocean views, warm weather, and big-city amenities in a hurricane-free environment. Think about it—how many places in the region offer so much while also making it easy and affordable to live there?
Thanks to Panama’s strategic position outside the hurricane belt we enjoy very mild weather, with lots of sunshine throughout the year. Even during the May through November “rainy season” we have mostly sunny mornings, with an hour or two of rain in the afternoon. Daily highs in the city and beaches are usually around 88 F, with lows around 78 F. In mountain towns like Boquete and El Valle, temperatures are 10 to 15 degrees cooler. There’s truly something for everyone here.
Panama’s location also made it the ideal “Hub of the Americas.” Completed in 1914, the Panama Canal has helped make Panama one of the richest countries in the region. These days big ships pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for each transit. Panama is also a flight hub. It’s just over three hours from Miami, and many of the airlines that serve the U.S. offer direct flights here. Panama’s Copa Airlines is one of the best regional airlines, while Tocumen International Airport is the best airport in the Central America/Caribbean region as well as one of Latin America’s top 10 passenger-friendly airports.
It’s easy to travel in-country, too. We have reliable inter-city buses and domestic flights to multiple destinations. The capital, Panama City, is home to Central America’s only light-rail or metro system. The infrastructure here is top-notch across the board. Panama is one of few countries in the region that boasts well-paved roads, potable tap water, and top-notch Internet and cellphone connections.
And yet Panama remains affordable and accessible. The Pensionado or Pensioner visa has earned Panama a top score, year after year, in the “Benefits and Discounts” category of the index. The program was created to ensure retired Panamanians could live with dignity as active members of society. If you have a pension—regardless of your age—you too can apply to become a resident pensionado.
The main requirement is straightforward: you must have a pension of at least $1,000 a month. Once you become a retiree resident of Panama, you gain access to all the pensioner discounts offered to locals. The savings are almost too good to be true…25% off power bills, 50% off movie and show tickets, 25% off plane fares, 20% off medication, 25% off meals at restaurants, and the list goes on.
Panama isn’t the cheapest country in the region, but given all it has to offer, it is incredibly affordable. Including rent, it costs me about $2,600 a month to live well in cosmopolitan Panama City. I live in a nice apartment just a seven-minute walk from a metro station. I can take an air-conditioned train and get downtown in 10 minutes for $0.35. If it’s a late night, an Uber home costs me $3 or $4.
On my budget I can afford to go out often. From film and music festivals to gourmet restaurants and wine expos, I’m spoiled for choice. This is Central America’s most modern, happening city. It’s incredibly international, and whatever your interests, they’re likely to be represented here. There are language and cultural institutes, museums and galleries, sporting and fitness events of every type…. From skydiving clubs to motorcycle enthusiasts, I’ve seen it all.
My vacations and weekends away are inexpensive, though they seem very glamorous to my friends back in the U.S. I can get a round-trip ferry ticket to Taboga Island for $20 (the trip takes 45 minutes). Contadora Island is a little more upscale—the ferry costs about $98 and takes less than two hours. Or I can hop in my car and—within an hour and at very little expense—find myself in a completely different environment. There are beaches like Chame, Gorgona, and Coronado…the mountain town of Cerro Azul…Campana National Park…again, I’m spoiled for choice.
Staying home is fun, too. In Panama City we now have great options for everything from sushi and sashimi to pizza and pasta. Many restaurants offer delivery, and with services like Uber Eats things have only gotten easier. The food scene is so exciting that in 2019 UNESCO recognized Panama City as an Ibero-American Capital of Culture with a rich culinary landscape.
Of course, you don’t have to be in the city to enjoy a great meal. I’ve had excellent Indian food in Caribbean Bocas del Toro, Peruvian in the mountain hamlet of Boquete, Argentinian in beachy San Carlos, Cambodian in the rural village of Santa Fe, and Italian in the crater town of El Valle.
At supermarkets and shops across the country you’ll find cheap local produce and products as well as imports from around the globe. From European cheeses to primo aged beef, you can get pretty much anything you want. And when it comes to wine, the prices and selection are unbelievable. (By the way…from wine shops to pharmacies to supermarkets, there are plenty of companies here that offer home delivery.)
Then there’s the worry-free healthcare: Panama’s private facilities are among the best in the region. And there are English-speaking doctors all over the country. I pay $10 to $20 to see a doctor, $40 for dental cleanings, and $100 for five chiropractic sessions. My health insurance is less than $150 a month. I no longer worry about getting older and having medical bills eat up all my savings.
Add to that the warm and welcoming people I’ve met here…the fertile land yielding abundant crops…the two coastlines lined with beaches…and it’s easy to see why I choose to stay. I’ve been here since 2005, and my life has just gotten better and better. Sure, I enjoy traveling and exploring different parts of the world. But I’m always thrilled to come home. For me, Panama still checks all the boxes.
1. Costa Rica
By Kathleen Evans
On the narrow, volcanic isthmus of land between the continents of North and South America, there exists a country so rich in natural beauty, the adjective is actually in its name. “Rich Coast” or Costa Rica attracts millions of visitors and foreign residents throughout the year with its tropical climate; lower cost of living; friendly locals; affordable medical care; vast real estate options; and, of course, its natural beauty.
Earning the nickname “Switzerland of Central America” this peace-loving democracy shines in a region often plagued by political and civil unrest. Costa Rica abolished their army in 1948 and pledged that budget to education and healthcare. Resulting in a well-educated population and medical access for all citizens and legal residents.
This republic is internationally known for its safety, neutrality, and commitment to the environment—with roughly a quarter of its land protected as national parks and wildlife refuges. The current democratic government, under Carlos Alvarado Quesada, is considered progressive and LGBTQ equal rights are mandated—officially legalizing same-sex marriage in May 2020. A rare policy to find in Latin America.
Once you have acquired your residency, you pay approximately 7% to 11% of your reported monthly income into the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social healthcare system (Caja for short) and the national medical program is available to you without pre-existing exclusions or age disallowance. Residents have the option to blend public healthcare with private medical care either through out-of-pocket self-insuring or with the purchase of insurance policies. You can purchase these through familiar names like Blue Cross/Blue Shield, CIGNA, Aetna, or a Costa Rican private policy. All at a fraction of the cost compared to the U.S. You will find three JCI accredited private hospitals in the San José area, as well as numerous private clinics throughout the country. The public system has over 29 hospitals and nearly 250 regional clinics, making it easy to find healthcare no matter where you choose to settle.
A couple can live comfortably, but not necessarily extravagantly, here for around $2,000 a month. This includes renting a two-bedroom home with North American amenities, air conditioning, plus groceries, entertainment, transportation, and healthcare. If your monthly budget is closer to $2,500 to $3,000, you will find a relaxed lifestyle with every comfort you require.
One of the things you hear often from expats is how warm and welcoming the ticos (Costa Ricans) are. They are wonderful people, eager to share the magic of their culture, food, and traditions with foreigners. You will also find engaging international communities of expats who will help you through the process of acclimation. The vast majority of new arrivals say it is very easy to make friends and fit in here. Black Americans are also finding peace in Costa Rica away from the systemic racism associated with the U.S. The Costa Rican government’s official proclamation rejects all forms of racism and discrimination.
Pura Vida is a common Costa Rican phrase. Although it translates to “pure life,” this definition merely scratches the surface of a phrase deeply woven into Costa Rican culture, and used to convey anything from “hello” and “goodbye,” to “great news,” “cheers!” and countless declarations in between.
Expat, Nicole Rangel, explains it in this way, “What makes Pura Vida such a check-all statement is that it translates to more than just a greeting. It is a solution, an action, and a way of life. When you approach life with a Pura Vida state of mind, you are opening yourself up to the possibilities of life beyond what you experienced before. You are sharing together in this communal acceptance that life doesn’t have to be controlled or mandated, you can make it what you want, you can have friends you never thought you would have, you experience things you never thought possible because you are opening up to a life less complicated.
“That is why so many people come to Costa Rica and find the best version of themselves—they embrace a new appreciation on life. It is just a bonus that it is in such a beautiful setting,” she continues.
Most expats will confirm living a healthier lifestyle once they arrive. Costa Rica is an outdoor culture—with no shortage of physical activities from fishing, golfing, and horseback riding to hiking, surfing, and yoga. Plus, there are less processed foods, and abundantly healthy choices of locally grown fruits, vegetables, organic eggs, and endless seafood and grass-fed beef. It is no surprise to hear reports about expats having shed unwanted weight, taking fewer prescription drugs, and overall better fitness of mind, body, and soul.
This revelation should come as little surprise since Costa Rica possesses one of only five “Blue Zones” on the entire planet—located on the Nicoya Peninsula in Guanacaste. These zones were discovered by National Geographic scientists and longevity researchers in the early 2000s. They consist of regions that have an unusually high population of centenarians (100+ year-olds). Ten times greater than in the U.S. The research confirms qualities such as healthy diets, natural calcium-enriched water, sunshine, active lifestyles, strong familial and friendship ties, and faith contribute greatly to their longevity.
Costa Rica, like all of Latin America, is predominantly Roman Catholic with approximately 75% identifying with Catholicism. However, you will not find the deeply rooted religious holiday traditions you find in other Latin countries. Costa Rica is considered quite secular. The government assures religious freedom for all. You will also find Evangelicals, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and small numbers of Jews, Mormons, and Muslims. Expats who settle in larger international communities will find English-speaking churches—primarily nondenominational Protestants.
With a dozen official climate zones and hundreds of microclimates, there is someplace for everyone’s personal weather preferences. Many people love the temperate “eternal spring” climate of San José, the capital, and the surrounding Central Valley. Or the dry, hot beaches of Guanacaste, or the lush, green landscape of the jungles in the south and Caribbean side.
Like everywhere in the world, the pandemic has dealt the Costa Rican economy a harsh blow and put strains on the healthcare system. Even so, the country remains a good long-term bet as we move toward a post-COVID world, given its natural beauty, resilient population, and progressive vision.
How we compile the Annual Global Retirement Index
Each year, we use our ever-expanding network of editors, correspondents, and contributors all over the world to give us the on-the-ground information and recommendations we need to put our index together…
All these people were once in your shoes. All of them wondered if they could ﬁnd a better life abroad. Many of them were former International Living readers who took the plunge, and now want to share their love for their new home with the world. These are the people we draw upon to put together our index each year.
We rank and score each of the 25 countries in the Index across the following 10 categories:
- Housing. This looks at the value of real estate and how easy it is to buy or rent your dream home overseas. We assess things like the price of houses and condos in areas an expat retiree would like to live in, annual property tax, and if there are any restrictions on expats owning property. We also asked our correspondents whether there are good opportunities to invest in property as a means of earning a rental or capital return.
- Benefits & Discounts. In some countries, as a retiree you can get discounts on lots of things, from airfare and food to electricity and public transport. All the beneﬁts and discounts retirees can get in the country are factored into this category.
- Visas & Residence. If you can’t legally and easily call a country home, it won’t be much good as a retirement spot. This category looks at things like how easy it is to get permanent residence, whether the income you make outside of the country will be taxed within it, and if there are any special residence options for retirees.
- Fitting In/Entertainment. This isn’t just about making friends with locals and expats. It’s also about feeling at home. Can you pick up your favorite North American comforts when you need them? And how easy is it to adapt to the local culture? This category looks at all of these things. Also, what will you do when you’re there? Are there lots of museums, events, and exhibitions? Are there lots of outdoor activities? And can you catch a movie in English when you want to?
- Development. You wouldn’t want to live anywhere where you couldn’t stream your favorite movies, call home, or access reliable electricity. You’ll also want quality roads and an efficient public transport network. These are just some of the factors that feed into the Development category.
- Climate. Moving abroad gives you the chance to escape from the extremes of weather back home. You can ﬁnd places overseas where the weather is just perfect for you. In this category, we rate the climate of each country, factoring in things like rainfall, temperature, and humidity.
- Healthcare. In this category, we put our experts to the test like never before. How much will you have to pay for things like laser eye surgery, a tooth crown, or a blood transfusion? Can you get common medications for things like asthma and diabetes? And do you need a prescription to get a reﬁll? When it comes to assessing healthcare, we factor in both quality and price to give you a fair and balanced view.
- Governance. Knowing that your new home respects personal freedom, keeps the bureaucracy to a minimum, and offers a stable and safe environment in which to enjoy retirement is a nice feeling. You’ll also appreciate an efficient banking system. And how well did each country cope with the COVID-19 situation, according to our correspondents? The Governance category examines these factors.
- Opportunity. Retirement doesn’t need to be a grinding halt. Maybe you have a business project you’d like to try out, or perhaps you’ve thought about supplementing your income with some freelancing work or online employment. We’ve examined how well the local authorities support small business, whether it’s easy to work remotely, and whether there’s a strong economy in each country. You’ll see the answers reflected in the Opportunity score.
- Cost of Living. A country has to be affordable to be a great retirement spot. It’s that simple. And to assess how affordable each country is, we got our experts on the ground to ﬁll out a comprehensive monthly budget. Everything from the cost of a liter of milk to a bottle of beer to a movie ticket was factored in.
Note: We’ve given Nicaragua and Bolivia low scores in the Opportunity and Governance categories. They’re still viable retirement locations, but because they’ve experienced political instability in recent years, proceed with caution.