Would you like to feel wealthier?
You could work more hours. Or get a higher-paying job. Or become a hermit and never go out or buy anything.
Or you could just move.
Each year I do a rundown of the cheapest places to live in the world, giving readers examples of real “normal person” costs in places where you can live well for less. By nature it can’t be complete—it’s an idea generator. Invariably it also generates lots of questions in the comments and by e-mail, so next year I’m going to answer all those questions in a book. [Editor's note - it's out now, as of August 13, 2014! Called A Better Life for Half the Price, you can see more details on the e-book and packages here.) If you want to join 2,000 other people on the Cheap Living Abroad newsletter, go sign up on this page.
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For now though, let's look at where you will be able to get by on far less money than you can in your own country by living somewhere else. Here are some of the cheapest places to live in the near future based on actual prices, economic conditions, exchange rates, and ease of staying for a while.
It's not hard finding a cheaper place to live than where you probably live right now. That list would probably be 100 countries long. You could just pull up Gross Domestic Product breakdowns and compare it to your country's. A list like that will only take you so far, however. Just because Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, or Haiti is cheap doesn't mean you're going to want to live there. Other places are a bargain and very desirable---like Indonesia or the Philippines---but the visa situation makes it very tough to buy or even set up residency unless you're going to marry a local, get a job with a multi-national, or start your own corporation.
Also, keep in mind that tourism deals do not always translate to cheaper residency. Just because you always see ads for beautiful Croatia holidays at bargain prices, don't split for the city of Split thinking that rents and restaurant meals are going to be cheap. Tourist towns are priced for tourists.
The cheapest places to live in the world don't change drastically from year to year, so last year's report is still full of great ideas. Economic conditions change though, as do visa requirements, so here's an update for the coming year, arranged by continent.
Cheapest Place to Live in Europe
In terms of economic growth, Europe is the sickest region in the world right now. So while it's not cheap, in the real estate world you can find lots of value. Even if you're not buying, there's big supply and low demand in countries where people are trying to get an income from second homes, where relatives have moved in together to save money, and where overbuilding has created a glut of empty apartments. If you're already a European Union passport holder, moving to another country here is a no-brainer. You're mobile, you've got budget flights home to see the relatives, and you've got very few visa hurdles.
Prices for rent or purchase are great in Hungary. Even in Budapest you can find a furnished apartment in a convenient area for 300 euros or less. Prices for eating out, drinking wine, and entertainment are half what you're probably paying in your home city. Head to a smaller city and prices drop more.
If you have ancestral roots in the country, you can get a fast-track citizenship, with a dual passport. You have to speak Hungarian, but this is a back door into the EU and Hungary would be a great place to live in Central Europe. This is one of The World's Cheapest Destinations for travel and you can hop on a train here to visit neighbors Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania. For more details, see my post on traveler prices in Budapest (and assume as a resident, you'll find lower ones...)
Romania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria
I'm lumping these three together because they all have a glut of housing for the same reason: a lot of their citizens are living abroad in order to make more money than they can at home. In the cities this means anyone who comes in with cash can find a nice apartment for 250 euros relatively easily. If you head into the countryside, there are entire blocks of empty homes that are either temporarily or permanently empty. If you're a buyer, you can pick up a house or new condo for less than US$50,000. If you're a renter, "How much have you got?"
Slovakia isn't as well set-up for inter-city transportation as the other two, but you can get between the main population centers on a train or bus. In Bulgaria and Romania, you will eat and drink very well for cheap and you can move between cities for a few dollars. See past posts on prices in Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania.
I visited Lisbon and then did a week-long bike trip through the rural Alentejo region of Portugal earlier this year and found the prices on some things comparable to what you would find in Eastern Europe. But you get those cheap prices in a warmer climate that borders the ocean. And if you learn the language here, you can use it in huge Brazil.
With the economic crisis in Europe hitting Portugal hard, it's a buyer's market for real estate. With unemployment high, there's little opportunity for living expenses to rise for those renting and buying groceries either. The great wine here is a terrific bargain and there's a tremendous amount of inherent beauty. The big drawback for Americans is this is a full member of the EU, with the same residency hurdles you will face anywhere else in Western Europe. Prepare for a long, drawn out process with the bureaucrats.
Spain and Greece
Neither of these countries is nearly as cheap as Eastern Europe or even Portugal, but in many ways they're in far worse shape. A completely collapsed economy and a burst real estate/banking bubble are hanging over both like a never-leaving storm cloud and unemployment is at levels the USA hasn't seen since the Great Depression. Basically half the people in their 20s are out of work and many in their 30s and up are too. That means more people living with their parents, more families cramming into one house instead of three. Then there are all the coastal towns where speculation went awry and where many of those Brits who bought homes desperately want to get out.
All this means that there's a "name your own price" real estate atmosphere in many areas, buyers taking whatever they can get in a market where sellers vastly outnumber buyers. You need to be in it for the long haul to profit from this, of course, but there's probably not been an opportunity like this for at least four decades. If you're a renter, land with some cash and patiently ask around. You'll probably find a house in Greece or Spain for a tiny fraction of what you're paying for a tiny apartment in, say, London, New York, San Francisco, or Sydney.
Ireland (wild card pick - for buyers)
[Update August 2014: this housing auction train might have left the station as Ireland is quickly recovering from its malaise. If you haven't acted by now, it may be too late. Go east or south...]
It has been a long time since Ireland has been called a cheap country, but right now it is a cheap place to invest in real estate. This has been one of Europe’s most troubled economies after rising fast and falling even faster. International Living reported this year that you can now get a fixer-upper for under US$30,000, a move-in-ready condo for US$50,000 and “You can buy your dream home here for one fifth of what it cost in 2007.” Prices are especially good in areas where Irish bought second homes they now want out of and developers built like the party would never end. Your daily costs will be on par with what they are at home—this is the EU after all—but if Ireland has a strong pull on your heart, having a home here that you got at a bargain basement price would be a great long-term investment, something to pass on to the next generation. If you’re of Irish descent, you can get an Irish passport too—a huge advantage when you travel to places with reciprocal visa fees. Do it soon though: Ireland is exiting their bailout program after three years, so the window won’t be open forever.
As for rental prices, as in most of the world it’s cheaper outside the big cities. Stats say rents in the country as a whole are only 40% of what they are in New York City. But for the price of one-bedroom apartment in Dublin you can get a three-bedroom house in smaller towns.
Cheapest Places to Live in Latin America
From Mexico down to Argentine Patagonia, the Americas offer a wide range of choices for living better for less. Pick your climate, pick your culture, and choose city, mountain vista, or beach. Then learn some Spanish: only in Belize and the Gringolandia places can you get by with English only. (If you must,those would be Ajijic, Puerto Vallarta, Playa del Carmen, San Miguel de Allende, Roatan, Granada, coastal Costa Rica, or Boquete.) A bonus consideration for this part of the world: you can almost always stay at least 90 days on the tourist visa you get on arrival.
It’s not the cheapest, but for ease of access and retirement incentives, Panama is tops. If you can show a monthly income of $1,000 or more (plus $100 for each dependent), getting a retiree visa is quite straightforward. And you don’t have to be retired either—there’s no age requirement. If you buy property worth $100K or more, your income requirement drops to $750 per month. You can import $10,000 of goods duty-free plus a car. You also get lots of discounts within the country, including internal flights. In three months you can become a permanent resident. Spend $300K in the country and you can get citizenship. There are other long-term visas for starting a corporation that hires locals, investing in agribusiness, or investing in reforestration.
Why move here? Think of it as Costa Rica with lower prices and fewer hassles. Instead of looking like they’re trying to keep foreign residents out, Panama puts out the message that they actually want you to come. But you can get much of what draws people to Costa Rica: jungle wildlife, a long coastline (Pacific and Caribbean), beautiful tropical islands, coffee country highlands bursting with flowers, and the most cosmopolitan city south of Miami. Infrastructure is far better here than the rest of Central America and the economy keeps growing at a rapid rate: the word “recession” passed this place by without even stopping in to say hello. Besides that, they’ve got the cheapest booze in this hemisphere.
This is, in most respects, the cheapest destination in the Americas. Take a look at these traveler prices in Nicaragua and know that as a resident, you’ll find even better deals than this. Many people who moved to Nicaragua say they’ve done it because the country seems like a land of limitless opportunity, a place where you can turn a blank slate into something beautiful. The economy is stable and growing and with a population just starting to gain much of what the first world takes for granted, this is a country on the rise. As with Panama, it shares many attributes with its neighbor Costa Rica, but with a far lower crime rate. (But, it must be said, less environmental protection and worse education.)
Even in Granada, the area with the most expatriates, you could get by on $1,000 a month, or $1,500 for a couple, without trying very hard. Bump that up to $2,000 a month and the two of you would be living like elites. Take that same amount into the countryside and you’re one of the richest people in town. About the only thing you’ll pay more for here than you would at home is imported items like clothing or electronics. Anything grown in the region, which is everything from coffee to pineapples, is going to be a fraction of what you would spend normally. This is especially true for services since labor costs are low. Medical costs in the top private hospital in the capital are typically 1/5 of what they would be stateside.
The best news is, it’s straightforward to get residency here and the income requirements are quite low—as in $1K for a family, less for a single person. You can stay for five years at a time after getting legal and can import $20K of goods duty-free. If you spend a hundred grand or more on a house, you can even work without asking.
Rents for a basic apartment start at $150 and if you spend more than $500 you’re likely getting a furnished family-sized home with plenty of amenities. You can buy a luxury home in Granada or San Juan del Sur that’s tricked-out with everything you’d want, but get past those two magnet towns and you can a lot of house for your money.
If they were more welcoming to foreigners, Bolivia would be an expat paradise. Prices are low, labor is cheap, and in places like Sucre, both the climate and the aesthetics are quite pleasant. You supposedly only need to show $1,000 a month in income–not carefully checked—to become a resident. Bolivia has been Venezuela’s closest ally besides Cuba for a long while though and the anti-Americanism has lived on past the death of Chavez. Because of the political track record, this is not a place where you want to buy something of great value: it’s not unthinkable that the leadership will freeze or take your property, as it has already done with many private companies.
Getting permission to live here for a year or two is technically not hard, but actually getting to the finish line of that takes superhuman patience. Check out this blow-by-blow blog post with each document needed to get an idea. But hey, you get 90 days on arrival while you’re sorting it out. Or you can just come for three months and move on.
Despite a big rise in the price of alcohol and an economy on the rise from oil and minerals money, Ecuador is still one of the cheapest places to live while having a good life. Not just in the Americas, but in the world. This is a place where it’s hard to spend more than $6 on a city taxi ride, even in Quito, and where spending $1,000 on rent will get you the kind of apartment or house that would be featured in a high-life living magazine at home. Ecuador is a country where you see full houses with land or historic building apartments near the Plaza Grande where the President works for sale for less than $50,000 (sometimes much less) and where I recently spent $2 on a three-course set meal two blocks from the center of Cuenca. Take a look at these prices for travelers in Ecuador. Oh, and doctors make house calls still, for a premium of about $10 over what the office visit would be. (Hint, it’s probably less than your co-pay in the USA.)
The most popular spot for retirees is the third-largest city of Cuenca, but even there the numbers of them are not overwhelming: the local tourism office estimates it’s 4,500 tops, in a city of around half a million. The mini-boom has driven up prices a little for rent or purchase, but they’re both still 1/4 of what you would pay at home. Get out of the three big cities and it gets even cheaper. Retirees who get legal residency have a lot of perks, including big discounts on already reasonable internal flights. You’ve got a whole range of climates in this one country, from sea level beaches to snow-covered mountains. That means they can grow just about anything too, so the range of cheap fruit and vegetables is staggering. All told, many couples living here spend $1,000 to $2,000 a month total and are living an above-average life.
You can certainly find cheaper places to live than my frequent home of Mexico, but it is possible to live here on half of what you normally spend in most parts of the USA in the interior, plus there’s the added advantage that it’s easy to get in and out of. I can get to my home in Guanajuato from Florida faster than I can get to Montreal or San Francisco. For not much more money. You can easily get by without a car in even small cities, health care is excellent and affordable, and there are plenty of other foreigners to get advice from—by some estimates close to a million of them.
Mexico seriously tightened up its immigration requirements in late 2012 though and there’s been a big outcry over the new income requirements. Technically you need to show an income of $2,000 a month plus $500 for each dependent. In reality though, some consulates have been requiring more to be on the safe side. On the other hand, I’ve also heard reports of some embassies and consulates (especially in Canada) just looking at one month’s pension statement and granting approval. This initial application must now be done in your home country before you leave, then you have 30 days after arriving in Mexico to go through the rest of the process locally, which takes several visits and close to $300.
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If you’re not looking to put down roots, you can forget those income requirements and take advantage of the very liberal visitor visa: you get 180 days upon arrival just for the asking. Many snowbirds come down for six months and then return home. Others come for 180 days, go on vacation outside the country, then return and get another 180 days. There’s a year of living abroad, immersed in the language and culture, without a single visit to an immigration office.
As with Mexico, you don’t come here because Belize is the absolute cheapest, but many move here for other compelling reasons beyond the price. The country is not big on rules, so it makes sense that getting residency here is pretty easy, for now anyway. If you’re 45 or older and can show monthly income of $2,000, you can tap into the Qualified Retirement Program. That gets you a residency visa and allows you to import household goods and a vehicle duty-free. To work or open a business, you come in on a renewable tourist visa, stay for 12 months (paying $900 in fees to renew each month along the way), then you should be approved. No income check required.
It’s relatively easy to find a simple house to rent for $600 or less, especially in the Cayo district or other towns away from the beaches. Prices to buy are not such a bargain though and it’s hard to find anything decent now for under $100K. Costs for eating out and buying groceries are high for Central America as well, in many cases double what you would pay in neighboring Guatemala. Still, many couples manage to live a good, laid-back life for between $1,500 to $2,500 a month, depending on their location and how much they’re spending on rent.
Guatemala and Honduras
Both of these countries are dirt cheap places to live. Unfortunately, they’re also two of the most crime-ridden countries in the Americas. It’s all about drugs moving through, so the violence is very localized. If you’re the type that can figure out the lay of the land and avoid the trouble spots, go to it. Especially as a renter, there’s not a big risk, plus you can’t really buy a place on Lake Atitlan as a foreigner anyway. So just rent a house for $250 a month there or an apartment in Antigua and move on later. In Honduras, most of the trouble is in the cities, which are unpleasant places to live anyway. Get into the smaller towns or the islands and it’s a different story.
Cheapest Places to Live in Asia
In the most current annual cost of living survey done by The Economist, half of the 20 cheapest cities to live in were located in Asia. If you get out of the big cities, you’ll be even better off.
This is first on the list not because it’s the easiest or the best deal, but because so many people dream of living here after visiting. A lot stay on to teach English, run a bar, or move in with that Thai girl who says she loves him, finding a way to keep making visa runs or get legal after a while. Getting a retirement visa is much easier than getting one for a youngster and if you get a one-year visa being the latter, you still have to leave the country and come back every 90 days. But then there’s this quote I saw on a residency site for staying long-term: “Permanent Residence Permit in Thailand is an opportunity that the Thai government offers to only 100 people of each nationality every year. ”
Thailand is a better place to rent than buy for most foreigners since rents are cheap ($400 can get you a furnished apartment in an elevator building and a pool or a a whole house in some areas) and you’re only allowed to buy a condo, not a home.
Anyone who has been here knows the benefits of Thailand, from great food to fun nightlife to gorgeous beaches to ummm, abundant pleasures to suit any lifestyle. It’s also an easy overland trip from here to Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia. Bangkok remains one of the world’s cheapest airports to fly in and out of from elsewhere.
In many respects, Cambodia is the cheapest destination in Southeast Asia and there are a lot of good reasons to live here, especially if you have a job where you can work remotely. For a pauper’s salary in the US, Canada, or Europe, you can like like royalty here. A taxi across Siem Reap will cost you $2, you can eat a great meal for under $4, and you could get an hour-long massage every day of the week for $5 a pop. In a country where the average income is under $100 a month, you can pay more than average for domestic help and still be amazed at how little it costs. Plus US dollars are used far more often than the local currency.
Like most of the rest of the region, this is a steamy and hot place, so don’t come here looking for eternal spring. This is the tropics from top to bottom. There are beaches though, so you can live near one or just travel south on breaks to cool off.
Buying property in Cambodia can be tough since technically you can only purchase a condo unless you form a corporation, but there are ways around every rule in this country if you’re determined, and you can buy your way in to citizenship if you so desire. But many find it easier and less burdensome to just rent. It’s possible to rent a multi-bedroom apartment in a good neighborhood for less than $200 a month, including utilities.
As with Panama in the Americas, Malaysia is not the cheapest place to live in Asia, but it is the most welcoming to retirees with some cash to invest. You can buy almost any kind of property freehold and once you do so (above a certain threshold), you’re all set for a residency visa. This is a formal program called My Second Home Malaysia, which you can read about in English here.
It’s easy to try Malaysia on for size, with most rentals suitable for a couple being under $1,000 a month outside of the capital, even in the top neighborhoods, unless you’re getting a penthouse or a palace. As a rough guideline, in most parts of Asia a couple could live on $2,000 to $3,000 a month and have it made.
This is a hot tropical country, but with lots of coastline and islands to get you seaside.
In many respects Vietnam is cheaper than Thailand and there are plenty of great reasons to live her if you’re dreaming of a home in the tropics. Since most of the population gets around by motorbike, you can join them and your moving around costs will be cheap. As usual you’ll go though some hassles to get residency, but there’s a strong network of expats you can tap into in the cities to get it sorted out. Even in the biggest cities you can find a nice furnished apartment or hotel suite for under $400 a month and if you go to a smaller place, you can get a whole house and a maid for that. Here are some sample traveler prices in Vietnam.
If you want to go live somewhere for cheap for a while for your finances to recover, you can come to India on a 180-day tourist visa and get by for very cheap. Despite more luxe travelers visiting and the middle class growing larger each year, this is still a country where far more people are poor than rich and the daily cost of living for the basics is among the lowest worldwide. When you get that $1 meal though, it’s actually varied and tasty, not just manioc mush.
Outside the two biggest cities, you could live very well for under $1,000 a month (and scrape by on far less if you needed to). You can find an apartment for $200 or less or just check into a hotel and stay there.
This is probably the cheapest country in the world to travel in right now, so naturally it’s also one of the cheapest places to live. It’s not easy to get residency here, but you can come in on a three-month tourist visa and then extend it. (Or find the right person to pay off and stay for longer.) If you like gorgeous mountain scenery every day when you look out your window, this is your place. Outdoor activities are abundant, meals are cheap, and you won’t pay much to rent a place to live. You’ll probably want to get out of crowded and polluted Kathmandu though. Head to Pokhara or travel around a bit to get a feel for the right place to settle.
Cheapest Places to Live in Africa
I get zero questions or e-mails about living in Africa, so I’m giving it a short shrift here. Obviously if you live like a local, there are plenty of places where you could get by for two or three dollars a day. Living on $50 a day would put you above the bulk of the population in most countries. But it takes a special kind of person to live in Africa out of a lifestyle choice rather than a job/charity one.
My friend Andy of HoboTraveler has lived a lot of stints in Tome, Togo and here’s his take on that place and Africa in general.
If I were going to move anywhere in Africa, it would probably be Morocco. It’s exotic, but it has good infrastructure and interesting architecture. It’s in my World’s Cheapest Destinations book because it’s one of the best values out there. You can get by in French.
Egypt was a natural cheap living option before, but let’s pass on that for now, shall we?
Spots on the East Africa backpacking trail are worth looking into, especially South Africa (not cheap, but cheaper than where you are now probably), Mozambique, and Mali for instance.
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