Many a traveler has landed in Buenos Aires and within less than 24 hours started to ponder the question, “Could I find a way to live here?” Some don’t just ponder it; they actually move to Argentina.
I spoke with Lisa Besserman, who lived in New York City most of her life and was facing the prospect of looking for a new apartment in Manhattan because her lease was up. “The rental prices were absolutely ridiculous, super-expensive,” she says. “My company was going through some changes and my job position didn’t feel stable. I didn’t want to be spending thousands of dollars on rent without being secure about my job. I was up for a promotion though and proposed a deal with my boss where I would work remotely for a few months instead, at the same pay rate, and I would go live somewhere cheaper. They said yes, so I looked at a map for places with a similar time zone and ended up in Buenos Aires.”
She did her three months of work for her old company, then decided not to come back. She left the job and now she runs her own company in Argentina: Startup Buenos Aires.
A large number of people who visit Argentina seem to dream of living there for a while at some point in their life. Buenos Aires is a major tourism magnet, but that’s just the beginning in a country that has more land than Mexico or Indonesia—but with a much lower population density.
The good news is, it’s relatively cheap here, especially if you’re earning dollars or euros somewhere else. “I didn’t want to have to work two jobs and have a crappy apartment back in the U.S.,” says writer and mother of three Cathy Brown. “I can freelance here and make it work, spending a lot of time with my family.” She lives in laid-back and beautiful El Bolson in Patagonia. About two hours south of Bariloche, it’s a land of gorgeous mountain scenery and some of South America’s best microbreweries.
There’s a lot of diversity in these landscapes. Up north you have a dramatic desert on one side and Iguazu Falls on the other. There are seasides, cities and farms in the middle, down to glaciers and freezing cold in the jumping off point to Antarctica.
Once you get settled in, prices can be very reasonable, especially if you have a way of bringing in lots of U.S. dollars or euros in cash. That’s because there are two exchange rates in Argentina’s fragile economy: the official rate and the “blue rate” you can get on the street from money changers. The latter is typically 20% to 30% better than the official one and both are printed in the local newspapers. Getting to your money electronically is almost like a hobby here though: many banks limit ATM withdrawals to around $150, so you end up hopping from one bank to another or using a service like Xoom to take out larger amounts of pesos. Hold onto your home country Paypal account because the banks here are too unstable to work with that service locally; the best bet is to get a debit card you can use to pull money from in Argentina using your original country account.
The Argentina Visa Situation
They’re not real big on rules in Argentina and that includes visa rules. It will probably cost you a lot to enter for the first time because this is one of those countries (like Brazil and Bolivia) that has a retaliatory visa fee policy. Whatever Argentines pay to enter the country on your passport, that’s what you’ll pay to enter theirs. It’s good for 10 years or the life of your passport, however, so after that you can come and go without paying again. Many renew their tourist visa indefinitely, leaving the country every three months for a short hop to Chile or Uruguay.
People who have come to work for an international company tend to get a work visa, but many others just leave four times a year. If something happens and they overstay their visa, it’s not the end of the world. “Argentina is one of the most lax countries for visas,” Cathy says. I don’t want to do anything wrong because I’ve got kids, but I’ve heard from a lot of people that if you overstay your visa, you just have to pay 300 pesos (less than $40 at the official rate)—whether you overstayed a day or five years. They sign off and you’re on your way.
If you’re only going to stay six months at a time, you may be able to renew your tourist visa locally without leaving the country. That’s generally only going to work once though, so it’s best for people not planning to spend the whole year here.
Getting a business visa requires a letter from an employer, a specified time period, and the employer’s acceptance of financial responsibility for the traveler. For obvious reasons, they have to really want you to make this happen. If you get one though, multiple-entry business visas are valid for four years.
As in many countries, living in the biggest city is going to cost you more than living in the countryside. For Lisa though, coming from Manhattan made this country seem like a screaming bargain. “I pay $700 a month for my duplex apartment in Palermo Hollywood, a great neighborhood, and it’s a doorman building with a pool. If you transplanted this place into Soho in Manhattan, which is a pretty similar kind of feel, it would easily cost $10,000 to $15,000 per month.”
Naturally the prices drop when you settle in a smaller city or town. While $300 to $500 a month is a good deal in the capital for an apartment, that will get you something furnished and modern in Salta, Mendoza, Cordoba, or Rosario. Where Cathy lives in Patagonia, $350 gets her a four bedroom, two bath house on 15 acres, beside a river.
Lining something up ahead of time is quite difficult though; hardly any agencies list prices online. The best plan is to rent a short-term apartment or stay in an apart-hotel at first so you can take your time looking around. Get recommendations from others (both locals and expatriates) on which agencies are trustworthy and look at plenty of apartments to assess what’s a good value.
If you’re going to buy a house or condo here, figure on paying the whole amount in cash, in dollars. People literally bring bags of money to a closing. In theory you can get a mortgage, but with interest rates running at 18%, you probably don’t want to. You can’t find the bargains here you could 10 years ago since Argentines view real estate as one of their reliable investments and there have also been buyers from Brazil coming in too. If the financial system collapses again though like it did in the early 2000s, who knows?
Leigh Shulman and her family live in Salta, Argentina. They own their house outright and other costs average out to $1,500 a month. “One of the biggest expenses is medical insurance, which is about $300 a month for good care. If you pay $60 more a month that includes plastic surgery once a year!” Private school costs around $100 a month and “we pay our maid far more than the market rate,” still $12 or so a visit.”
Thanks to subsidized electricity, Argentina has some of the lowest monthly utility costs in Latin America. Lisa pays $5-$8 a month for her apartment of around 1,000 square feet. “I thought it would go up a lot when we were running the air conditioning in the summer, but it was only a couple dollars more,” she says.
Cathy Brown pays even less in her small town. “My last electric bill was around $4,” she says. “And that was for two months.”
Leah Shulman and her family live in a large house they own in Salta, but still only pay $10-15 per month in electricity and $8-$10 per month for gas and water combined.
Cable and internet together are $15-$18 per month depending on the package. “In New York City I paid $150 per month for about the same bundle,” says Lisa.
If you like a good steak dinner accompanied by a nice bottle of wine, you’ll be in heaven here. They take their grilled meats very seriously in this country and it’s considered a God-given right to sip wine with every meal. Prices are quite reasonable on both, to the point where a group of people can go out and eat to their heart’s content for $10 a person or less. The things Argentines do well they do very well: barbecued meat, wine, Italian food, coffee, ice cream, and pastries.
The recent financial problems have wreaked havoc with prices and supplies though. When the peso fell by 19% in January of 2013, many store shelves were bare and prices for what was available skyrocketed soon after in local currency terms. The country is a financial basket case and inflation is very high. Who knows what will happen in a few years or even a few months. This is probably not a country where you want to swoop in and buy a place without knowing what you’re getting into. But if you have the kind of job where you can earn hard currency elsewhere and spend it here, this is currently one of the world’s great arbitrage opportunities.
The bottom line? If you’re able to exchange dollars for pesos at anywhere close to the street rate, you can live pretty well in Argentina as a single person on $800 or quite comfortably for $1,000—even in Buenos Aires. If you’re sharing a place, it’s even easier. For a couple or family, $1,500 a month will put you at the upper range of middle class here.