Every year on this long-running blog I do a post on the cheapest places to live in the world. There are seldom drastic changes in the cost of living from year to year, but political changes and exchange rate fluctuations can have a significant impact.
The U.S. dollar rules right now, so for the time being the world is on sale for Americans, not quite as cheap for Canadians and Europeans. Still, in any of these locations you should be able to live out the promise of my book: A Better Life for Half the Price. If you’re interested in getting monthly updates on this subject to put your dreams into action, sign up below and you’ll receive a report on where you can live on a tourist visa for four months or more.
As usual, the cheapest places on the planet to travel are also the countries with the lowest cost of living if you’re willing to put up with plenty of challenges.
Nepal is probably the hands-down winner in terms of what you get for your money. If you were set up with $1,200 a month coming in there—the equivalent of one Social Security check—you’d be part of the wealthy elite. You could live on half that and still be eating well. Getting residency is quite tough though, so most people just do short stints in the country unless they’ve got a work visa or they’ve set up some kind of charity. Oh, and the electricity and internet both go out on a daily basis.
Parts of India are a great bargain as well, though you wouldn’t know you’re in a bargain country if you get transferred to Mumbai or Bangalore for a job. There’s a lot of money and investment in those cities and plenty of millionaires milling about. Instead look to the smaller cities and Himalayan mountain towns where it’s not unusual to find a house to rent for a couple hundred dollars and restaurant meals for what you spend on a soda in your home country. There are thousands of expatriates and travelers taking a pause that are easily getting by for $600 a month total here, or spending twice that and living the high life.
The visa situation in India has gotten a lot better recently. If you’re only planning to stay for six months, great. You get that long automatically if you want when applying and the process has gotten a tad faster in recent years. There is no such thing as a retirement visa here for people with no Indian blood. In theory Americans can get a 10-year multiple entry visa, but before you could only stay 180 days at a time before needing to leave for at least two months before returning. Now you can just do a border run and return immediately. Australians can get a multi-year tourist visa, UK citizens up to five years (but only 180 days in a stretch), Canadians generally get up to 180 days and some have been able to get the same long multi-entry one as Americans. With all of them, the clock starts ticking when the visa is issued, not when you arrive.
Sulawesi Flickr Creative Commons photo by Fabio Achilli
Indonesia is kind of a mixed bag as well, with prices in Bali up by a factor of five or six from when I first started writing about the place, mostly due to a massive influx of tourists and woo-woo expats following the Eat, Pray, Love spell. Once you get off that island though, prices drop substantially. If you settle down in a place that’s not jammed with tourists, say on Sumatra or Sulawesi, this is another country where you can easily live a nice life on $1,000 a month or less. There’s just one big problem: it’s tough to get a visa to live here long-term unless you’re working for a company that’s giving you a work visa, if you have an Indonesian spouse, or you’re over 55 and have a decent income.
You also can’t own property and in much of the country the internet is far from fast if you want to run a business online. There are other strange quirks such as a minimum housing spend and a pledge to hire at least one domestic worker (though you probably would anyway at these prices). Locals have found some workarounds that keep them from having to fly to Singapore every two months, though they still have to leave the country every six months and go to an immigration office every two.
Naturally if you’re willing to “go native” you could find plenty of places in the world where your neighbors are literally earning a few dollars a day. It doesn’t take a lot to be upper middle class in a farming town in China, the bush of rural Africa or some village in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia. Since most people who grew up in a first-world environment aren’t willing to go that far, however, here are the places where you can live a half-price life and still have good infrastructure (including internet fast enough to run a business) and conveniences if you want. This list is geared more to Americans since that’s the bulk of my readership, so do a little currency calculation of your own by using the site Numbeo for a rough overview.
Cheapest Places to Live – Temporary Opportunities
A strong dollar and cheap oil are having a major impact on prices around the world. If you’re reading this post years later, assume we’ve returned closer to the mean. If you’re American and are waiting for the opportune time, 2016 is going to be your year. Just go!
The interest in Colombia as a place to live has been on an upward trajectory for years, but the fall in their currency against the dollar has turned a good value into a terrific bargain. Here’s what one of my readers wrote recently as a comment: “I live in La Paz, Bolivia and have just been to Bogota for 4 day break – first time back for about 11 or 12 years. I was surprised at just how cheap it was , certainly cheaper than La Paz for the majority of things. Probably things like local produce are about the same, but for anything imported it was considerably cheaper, often up to 50% cheaper.” The city of choice for most is Medellin (see this site for info and prices), with great weather year-round and a good food and nightlife scene. There are plenty of cheaper places to live around the country if you want something less hectic, but be advised that lovely Cartagena is no bargain. It’s a favorite of tourists and domestic investors buying vacation homes, so while it’s gotten more reasonable, it’s an outlier.
The expats I interviewed for A Better Life for Half the Price were generally living on half what they did in the U.S., though that was when the peso was much stronger than it was now. You could easily get by for less now. Since the beginning of 2013, the dollar has gone from fetching 1,760 pesos to more than 3,000 pesos. Here’s what that looks like:
I reported last year that it was a great time to land in Argentina with greenbacks in hand. “Combine a strong dollar with a local financial mess and you get a great climate for someone entering with foreign currency.” At that point the official exchange rate was 8.6 to the dollar and the real one on the street was 13. Now the official rate is 9.69 and the “blue rate” has passed 15.
Combine that with bargain-priced good wine, almost-free health care, and reasonable housing costs and it starts looking like expat heaven. The ability to stay almost indefinitely on a tourist visa is a big plus too. Just cross to Uruguay or Chile every three months and take a short vacation or return immediately. The expatriates I interviewed here are living on far less than half of what they spent before, especially those who made a lateral move from New York City to Buenos Aires. Naturally if you get into smaller towns, prices drop dramatically.
I’ve spent three of the past five years living in Mexico and it is cheaper there now than when I first visited in 2002. The most common exchange rate over the years has been 13 to the dollar. Over the past couple years the peso has been dropping though and it’s now around 17 to the dollar. This makes our closest neighbor to the south a screaming bargain anytime you go to a restaurant, buy a beer, take a taxi, or hire a carpenter. My family of three averaged $2,300 a month in expenses all in while in Guanajuato, paying all medical costs out of pocket, having a maid two times a week, having a handyman come almost weekly to do improvements/repairs, and traveling a lot within the country. We weren’t very frugal at that level either because we didn’t need to be. We could eat out constantly, go to cultural events, and enjoy life to the fullest. It’s cheaper now than when I wrote this Guanajuato post. Our maid is one of the best-paid in town and she gets $4 an hour.
You can stay 180 days on a tourist visa in Mexico, then get another 180 just by leaving and coming back. If you can show a good enough income, the residency process is straightforward if you want to stick around or put your kids in school. You can usually find a round-trip flight priced just a tad above a domestic one and it’s easy to get by without a car.
If you want first-world amenities and infrastructure, tap water you can drink, and pleasant weather, it’s hard to top Portugal. This is the cheapest country in Western Europe at any time, but the continuous fall in the euro, combined with a lingering debt crisis, means Portugal’s low costs have gotten even lower. It’s hard to imagine that you could move from the U.S. or Canada to Europe and actually spend half of what you’re spending now on living expenses, but here it’s possible. Lisbon is more expensive than the rest of course, so the “half price” part only works there if you’re moving from a big city, but it’s blissfully cheap once you get outside of the capital and even there it’s a bargain by European city standards.
It’s much easier to get residency as a EU citizen than from elsewhere, so there are more Brits living in Portugal than other nationalities. Still, with enough patience and some money to pay a lawyer, it’s possible for other nationalities to get long-term residency. See this post for more on the cost of living in Portugal.
While the nation above is the cheapest in the western part of the continent, half that again if you head east to the cheapest place to live in Europe period—Bulgaria. This is the kind of country where you can find a house for sale on eBay that’s cheaper than what you paid for your last car. It’s the land of large dollar beers, 4-euro bottles of decent wine, and 10-euro monthly mobile phone bills. The average salary here is less than 500 euros a month, so if you’ve got $1,200 a month coming in, you’re twice as wealthy as the average.
Keep in mind you get the full four-season effect here, which means it’s not a place to live year-round if you hate the cold. In the summer you’ve got the Black Sea beaches though and you can eat really well here with all the fresh produce and yogurt. As with Portugal, EU citizens have no visa issues but we North Americans do. A stay is limited to 90 days unless you apply for a residency visa before leaving your country and then finish up the paperwork after arrival locally.
Other Temporary Opportunities
The currency in Malaysia has dropped by a third against the U.S. dollar the past few years, making Southeast Asia’s easiest country an even better value. If you’re a retiree, getting residency here is straightforward if you’re willing to invest in property.
The expat favorite of Thailand keeps seeing an inflow of residents and tourists despite frequent political blow-ups and a baffling visa policy that causes tens of thousands of people to do border runs every two months. The currency ranges between 30 and 35 to the dollar and right now it’s around 35, making rent, street food, and transportation a better deal than before. The government recently introduced a six-month multiple-entry visa, which will make things a little easier. You can still only stay 60 days at a time, but you know you’ll be able to get back in with no issues each time.
While the above should stay unusually cheap for the coming year, eventually they will likely return to a more normal price range as currencies return to historic norms. The following have been tied more to the dollar, however, so prices have remained relatively stable. Even if you’re reading this in 2018, these should still be some of the cheapest places to live in the world.
They actually use the greenback as their currency in Ecuador, so inflation is very low and most price changes are due to government intervention rather than market forces. (The prime example is imported booze, which has a 100% tax). Cuenca and Vilcabamba have been retiree havens for quite a while, especially for those who looked at their meager retirement savings and realized they were going to be in rough shape if they stayed in the U.S. or Canada. Most of them are paying between $300 and $600 a month for rent of a house or condo and nobody I’ve talked to living there is spending more than the equivalent of two social security checks for a couple. Health care costs about 1/10 of what it does in the United States, with good facilities in the cities.
There are a lot of perks for retirees, including 50% off all national and international airfare, 50% off all cultural and recreational events, and 50% off some utility charges. As long as you can show $800 or more in monthly income, you’ll qualify for a residency visa. Meanwhile, you can stay 90 days on a tourist visa and can usually extend it within the country.
With a slight edge over Ecuador in the prices area, Nicaragua has lured a lot of expats looking for a cheap place to live without a lot of hassles. It’s inexpensive to fly here and get around after arrival, plus prices are sometimes too cheap to believe for rent, meals, and a night out on the town. Most foreigners not trying to duplicated their previous lifestyle exactly are spending between $1,000 and $2,000 a month while in the country and that affords plenty of fun and domestic travel. A local guide I had on my last visit said $1,000 per month for a family of four was firmly middle class there.
Nicaragua makes it easy to gain residency, with the income requirement only being $750 per month if you’re under 45, $600 a month if you’re older than that and way to say you’re retired. Or you can just take a trip to the border every three months indefinitely on tourist visas.
This is one of those countries that’s a better deal for living than it is for travel. That’s because of terrific affordable health care, some of the best residency incentives in the world, and generally reasonable living expenses. On the health care side, it’s not unusual to pay $20 to see a doctor, $35 to see the dentist and get a cleaning, or a shade over $10,000 for surgery at a hospital affiliated with Johns Hopkins. The capital city is dramatically more expensive than the rest of the country and it’s less pleasant too, so look to other locations to get the real bargains. There are plenty to pick from, ranging from volcanic highlands to tropical islands.
Panama has the world’s best pensionada program for retirees, but really you don’t have to be retired or even old. You just need to show $1,000 a month in income to get a long list of incentives and discounts with your residency. They use the U.S. dollar here, the government is relatively stable, and there’s a solid banking system in place. A metro is now open in the capital and Copa Airlines is based here, so flight connections are good in multiple directions.
You don’t read much about Peru in the likes of International Living and it’s kind of a mystery to me why more people don’t put down roots here. Sure, the capital city is kind of ugly and has lousy weather, but other parts are a different story and the Sacred Valley would be a wonderful place to live. One person doing just that is Nora Dunn of The Professional Hobo. I interviewed her in her current home town of Pisac:
When it comes to visas, Peru is a dream (on paper at least). They’re one of the few countries to offer a “freelancer visa” for people earning at least $25K a year on their own and there are some incentives for retirees applying for residency. If you don’t care about that though and just want to come live for a while temporarily, that’s quite easy. You can stay 183 days on a tourist visa and I haven’t heard of anyone getting hassled when they leave and come back in. If you overstay the penalty is $1 a day.
The cheapest place to live in Southeast Asia also has one of the best visa setups for working digital nomads. Just pay a couple hundred bucks for a business visa and you’re good to go for a year. With that you can work, run a business, be an online entrepreneur, or just kick back and be a beach bum doing nothing. As long as you don’t try to live in a fancy condo on the river in the capital, you can easily find a nice two-bedroom place to rent for $600 or less or buy a condo on the cheap. (Foreigners can’t own land here without going through some legal contortions.)
If you lived in Cambodia with earnings of $2,000 per month, you’d be firmly in the top-5% by income and be part of the upper crust. With even half that you’d be one of the well-off people and could go out for dinner every night if you wanted. Hire a gardener and a maid too and still have plenty to spare.
I never would have predicted this, but Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is now a real hotbed for digital nomads and entrepreneurs. Lured by cheap rents, reasonably fast internet, and a smart young workforce with some coding skills, they’re braving the heat to build a business for less. The great food and cheap beer don’t hurt either, plus it’s easy to get to a beach from any of the cities. Plenty of foreigners are living here for $1,000 to $2,000 a month and having a blast. Most don’t even have a kitchen since it’s so cheap to eat out all the time and there are lots of short-term furnished apartment rentals that come with towels and a maid.
Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania
I’m lumping all these together in this blog post just because right now the prices aren’t all that different between them outside of the parts with the most tourists. Hungary has the best infrastructure and wine, Romania has the fastest internet, the Czech Republic has the best beer, and Slovakia has a little bit of it all plus the euro as its currency. All have a tough language to navigate though that you won’t use anywhere else and all can get frigid in the winter. But in any of the four you can easily live in a comparably sized city as you’re in now or move small town to small town and spend half or less than what you’re plowing through now for expenses.
I just got back from Honduras and once you get out of the two nasty main cities, the crime rate drops to normal levels. The minimum wage is somewhere around $400 and if you meet someone making $800 a month they’re probably in a management position or are earning a good wage for being bilingual. Without a lot of expatriates driving prices up except on Roatan Island, you’d have to rent an oceanfront mansion to pay more than $1K per month on rent.
Bolivia is a bargain in many respects thanks to its status as one of the poorest countries in South America and some parts are quite beautiful.
Guatemala is kind of a strange one because living on Lake Atitlan would give you killer scenery for a song, but Antigua is getting more expensive every year, with housing prices on par with parts of the U.S. and Canada. There’s also a fair bit of crime, though much of what’s in the news takes place in the capital city, where few tourists ever go.
I’ve got to put the Philippines in here because otherwise I’ll get chided by them for leaving them out. It’s a bit of a one-sided expat population there though, comprised of older men looking for a younger companion. If that’s you or you have a business reason to set up shop there, you’ll find plenty of English speakers and reasonable prices.
Yes there are other places where you could live for half price. Heck just going from London to any small town in Wales or the USA will probably accomplish that. But in these locations it’s a sure thing.
If the idea of doing this gets you excited, do it right by checking out the packages at my Cheap Living Abroad site. If you like to hold a real book in your hands, yes there’s a paperback available worldwide at Amazon.
There are a thousand excuses you can come up with to not do this, and you may not have the right personality for it, frankly. If you’re a good match though, let me save you lots of time and hassle in the planning and doing.
Tim Leffel is the editor of the Cheapest Destinations Blog, Perceptive Travel, and TravelWriting2.com. He is the founder of Al Centro Media and the author of five books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations.