Editor’s note – This post is very old. See more recent annual versions for updates on the cheapest places to live currently.
I know this question nags at a lot of travelers wanting to escape to a faraway place. I see it in the search engine hits I get on my web site and the e-mails I receive from readers. For most of us who have spent years overseas, the idea of living abroad is always kind of lurking in the back of our mind. For plenty of other daydreamers, restless souls, and burned-out career climbers, it’s perhaps right in the front of their minds.
Some people aren’t just asking a rhetorical question; they’re ready to take off right now. They’re retiring, or they’ve got a skill they can use overseas. Or they’ve put away enough money to set them up for a good while.
As we enter the busiest shopping season of the year, many travelers think wistfully about escaping the rampant commercialism we see around us and setting themselves up with a simpler, cheaper life. Yet most people don’t know where to start.
Fortunately, there are plenty of others blazing that path for us. They’re offering up their experiences and lessons learned. They’re telling us how much things costs, and letting us know where you can become a resident without doing a visa run every few months. The information that these expats pass on can be extremely valuable.
On the other hand, there is plenty of info out there that’s more misleading than it is helpful.
Unless you’ve got more money than you know what to do with, avoid articles published by ritzy travel magazines, as well as studies published by magazines meant for business travelers. In the first category you’ll find features on living abroad that are meant for people with a very high net worth. They look at half-million dollar houses in Tuscany as a bargain and tell you that you can buy a house in Bali for “only $200,000.” Are they nuts?! Set me down in Bali with that much money and I could buy a house for each member of my family–and have enough left over to paid the maid and gardener!
This study, similar to the ones you often see in business magazines and large newspapers, only looks at living costs for expatriate executives. It has little relation to what a normal expatriate not on a cushy compensation plan will experience. It also doesn’t consider whether any foreigner would want to live in these cities if given a choice. Who wants to move to Manila if it’s not for business? Who in their right mind wants to move to Bogota for any reason? Paraguay? Zimbabwe? No thanks.
For a rounder picture that includes “on-the-street” costs, attractions of the local lifestyle, and residency requirements, turn to the sources at this link. All offer some free info, though you’ll have to cough up a little money if you want some real down and dirty details on specific countries. Resources range from expat links and articles on working overseas, to e-books and guidebooks full of valuable contacts and paperwork shortcuts.
So where are the cheapest places to live? Well, that question is far too loaded for an easy answer. If you just want a cheap place to lay your head, some bargain food, and cheap transportation, then the cheapest places to visit are often the cheapest places to live. You’ll have to do frequent visa runs, but super-cheap countries such as Nepal, India, Indonesia, and Guatemala will fit the bill. For more permanent digs, maybe some job possibilities, and real residency, do some digging at the sites above and see what strikes your fancy. For Americans and Canadians, the obvious choices are in Latin America. For others it could be anywhere from Malta to New Zealand.
Remember that costs are all relative though. If you’re living on some kind of small income stream from home, then cost of living will be a prime factor. If you need to be working locally, a place where you can make enough to support yourself will probably not be a place with the lowest costs. And if you need a place with good first-rate medical facilities, that influences not only the country, but the location within the country as well.
And as International Living editor Kathleen Peddicord recently pointed out, you need to figure out what’s important. “Don’t move abroad looking for convenience,” she advises. “The U.S. has the monopoly. Come abroad for something else… something more. And don’t forget to recognize it when you find it.”