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 in different countries, but political changes and exchange rate fluctuations can have a significant impact.
The U.S. dollar rules right now, so as long as that holds, 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 move from a big city to a big city or from a small town to a small town, any of the places in this post should allow you to cut your expenses in half and have a lot more to spend, save, or invest in a business.
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When I put in cost of living estimates here of $1,000 a month for one or $1,500 for two, as an example, assume that’s leading a reasonably comfortable life without making lots of sacrifices. Obviously if you’re willing to truly live like a local who is earning half that amount, you can get by for far less. 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 if you’re earning a few hundred dollars more a month than your average local. If you can live on their terms, you can get by on what they do. Most people who say, “I’m living in Mexico on $500 a month” when they argue with me are doing just that.
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), a decent house or apartment to live in, and a fair number of the conveniences you’re used to. You can enjoy the place you’re living and go out instead of staying home with a book every night eating rice and beans.
The Absolute Cheapest Places to Live in the World
In general, the very 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 a fair number of challenges.
Nepal is probably the hands-down winner in terms of what you get for your money. If two of you were set up with $1,200 a month there—the equivalent of one Social Security check—you’d be part of the wealthy elite. One person could live on half that and still be eating well. Getting residency is quite tough though and you can’t really stay more than 150 days in a year if you don’t have it, so most people just do short stints in Nepal 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 in recent years. 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. Americans can get a 10-year multiple entry visa now though, plus you can stay 180 days straight before you need to head out of the country for a bit. But 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.
In most respects, Cambodia is the cheapest place to live in Asia outside the Indian subcontinent. Unfortunately the easy access to a business visa there has disappeared, but you can still stay longer here on a tourist visa with extensions than you can in other Southeast Asia countries. A large number of expats are getting by for $800 to $1,000 in the capital city while having a nice apartment and going out a lot, or for a lower amount in smaller cities where rents are lower. See more in this post on the cost of living in Cambodia.
In Europe, it’s a toss-up on the absolute cheapest places to live between Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Albania. The prices are so similarly low for your basic basket of living expenses that it’s hard to pick a clear winner. Bulgaria is one of the cheapest places to go out drinking, to buy a house, or to ski.
Albania gets the edge on the weather (it’s above Greece and across the sea from Italy) and its 12-month visa for Americans. This may be the cheapest place in Europe to live by a beach where you can go swimming in the summer. There’s a lot of coastline to enjoy.
Bosnia is just all-around cheap because local wages and low rents keep prices down. See detailed rundowns on costs for Bulgaria and Albania on this blog.
In Latin America, Nicaragua was the ruling king of cheap living for a many years, but the dicey political situation there (a dictator willing to kill protesting civilians to hold onto power) has driven away most tourists and foreign residents. So the next-best bet is Guatemala, especially outside Antigua. When you look at the cost of living in a beautiful place with a view, Lake Atitlan is surely one of the best values on the planet outside the Himalayas. Here’s some more detailed info on what travel costs on Lake Atitlan are like, to give you an idea.
In South America, Ecuador remains the best value overall for expatriates, especially for retirees. 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 $650 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.
Where Else? Here are some of the other countries to consider around the world.
The Cheapest Places to Live in Latin America
For Americans, heading south to Latin America is the best bet, especially for location independent laptop workers who want to stay on a similar time zone. You can get by learning just one useful language—Spanish—in any of the countries profiled below, plus apart from Argentina the flight prices are usually under $1,000. For Mexico they’re often not much more than a domestic flight in the USA. I just got a round-trip one on Southwest from Mexico City to New York City for $300. And that’s on Southwest, so I can check baggage for that fare.
I already mentioned Guatemala and Ecuador as the overall cheapest countries to live in for Latin America, but here are some others to consider, and to travel to for a trial run.
Cheap Living in Mexico
I lived in central Mexico for three years with my family and now my wife and I are back here again as empty nesters. Because the Mexican currency has dropped so much against the dollar, it is cheaper here now than when I first visited in 2002. The peso generally trades between 18 and 20 to the dollar now. This makes our closest neighbor to the south a screaming bargain anytime you go to a restaurant, buy a beer, take a taxi, get a haircut, or hire a carpenter.
As a family of three we lived on $2,100 a month in Guanajuato when we were renting a four-bedroom apartment, before we bought a house. Now two of us will probably average $1,800 a month in expenses with paying all medical costs out of pocket, having a maid two times a week, having a handyman come to do improvements or repairs, and traveling a lot within the country. We aren’t very frugal at that level either because we don’t need to be. We can eat out constantly, go to cultural events, and enjoy life to the fullest. It’s cheaper now than when I wrote this cost of living in Mexico post.
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. In colonial cities, it’s easy to get by without a car. Just understand that I’m talking about Mexico away from the tourist resorts. Los Cabos could cost you as much as your current home and it’s not such a bargain in Playa del Carmen or Puerto Vallarta. You need to go inland or to a beach without a lot of moneyed tourists around.
Honduras doesn’t get much good press anymore because the two main cities are very dangerous places. It’s much more mellow on the islands of Roatan and Utila, famous for their diving and beaches, or other spots like Ceiba and Copan. If you’re willing to look past the news headlines, this is a cheap place to live in the tropics. Even on Roatan, one social security check would be enough to cover basic living expenses and then some. After all, the average salary for Hondurans is less than $500 per month.
Panama Outside the Capital
Many people are surprised when they see a current photo of Panama City, with its sleek skyscrapers jammed together for miles. There’s a lot of money in that city from shipping, banking, and investment from Latinos living in shakier economies. It’s still a cheap place to eat at a restaurant, go out for drinks, and buy electronics thanks to Panama’s duty free, open market policies. To really reap the cost savings though, it’s better to head to Boquete, David, or one of the many small coastal towns along the Pacific or the Caribbean.
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. The government is relatively stable and Copa Airlines is based here, so flight connections are good in multiple directions. 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.
Medellin is as close as you get to a digital nomad hotspot in Latin America, with Colombia attracting a lot of the location independent crowd. They’re attracted to the nice climate, the nightlife, the fun people, and reasonable costs of living. The fall in their currency against the dollar over the past few years has turned a good value into a terrific bargain. There are plenty of cheaper places to live than Medellin 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 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. Costs are about 30% of what they are in New York City, to give you an idea, with rents in Medellin averaging $300 to $650 per month. Spend more than that and you’ll probably have a city view, a pool, and a gym included and get two or three bedrooms. A dollar here will get you a good cup of coffee, a beer in a basic bar, or at least a kilo of local fruit or vegetables.
Argentina the Financial Yo-yo
When I last visited this country in late 2017, it had gotten surprisingly expensive. Less than a year later, Argentina was cheap again. That’s the Argentina story, so for all I know, by the time you read this it will be either bankrupt (again), be reeling from high inflation (again), or will be inexplicably overpriced. The country seems to prefer a natural state of crisis and is prone to shooting itself in the foot with fiscal policy, so wait long enough and you’ll find an opportunity to live a half-price life in Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Salta, or Patagonia.
When the timing is right, you get bargain-priced good wine, almost-free health care, and reasonable housing costs. Right now you can find terrific deals through Airbnb without even bargaining for a better long-term rate. Here are monthly prices for apartments in Mendoza.
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.
Bolivia and Peru Living
I’m lumping these together because neither tends to get all that many expats putting down roots, more often they serve as temporary stopovers or travel spots. Neither makes it easy to get permanent residency. Until recently, Peru was an easy place to stick around casually without going through immigration. You could get six months on a tourist visa (with an extension from within the country) and then just do a border run to start over. In 2018 they started cracking down on this, however, and now you can only stay a maximum of 183 days in a 365-day period. That’s fine for a digital nomad who is willing to move on after six months, but it’s not a good place to be a long-term resident unless you’re planning to travel half the year.
If you can qualify as a retiree, that’s the best route. You just need to prove income of $1,000 per month and go through a lot of paperwork, including documents from your own country. International Living has a good first-person rundown on it here.
For Bolivia, you need to really want to live there as even getting a one-year temporary residency will require a hefty stack of paperwork and many visits to immigration, with the initial application process started in your own country before arriving but still having a local address and utility bills to submit. If you make it through all this, you can live well on less than $1,000 per month in a chilled-out city like Sucre.
The Cheapest Places to Live in Europe
Many people dream of living in Europe, then after they look at the prices in Ireland, France, or Italy, they say, “Ummm, never mind.”
It would probably surprise many people to know you can live in Europe for less than half what you’re spending now in the USA, England, or Australia if you go down a couple notches on the development scale. In many of the countries to follow, the average local wages are far below even the minimum wage in your own country, which impacts everything from taxi fares to restaurant prices to rents.
I already mentioned Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegonina, and Albania in the “cheapest overall” section at the top, so keep those in mind if you’re looking for a place to live well on $1,200 or less per month. Here are some others where that’s also possible, though in Portugal it’ll be much easier if there are two of you earning that much and you’re sharing housing expenses.
As with Bulgaria, this is not a place to move to year-round if you hate cold weather, but Romania has a lot going for it, including some of the fastest internet speeds in the world. You’ll get speeds of 100 mbps or more for half what you’re paying now for a slower connection. The food is plentiful and reasonably priced, the booze is cheap, and getting around is inexpensive. There are some beautiful towns in the Transylvania region especially with a strong cafe culture.
If you can put up with the authoritarian politics and the anti-immigration stance, Hungary is a real bargain place to live in Europe. It’s like a half-price Austria, with good food, good wine, fun nightlife, and a lot of beautiful countryside. It’s easy to get to the rest of Europe from here for vacation and within the country you can go from hopping capital city to a chilled-out house on Lake Balaton or the sunny southern vineyard lands in a few hours by bus or train.
Hungary is part of the Schengen zone though, so it works better for digital nomads than those who want to stick around all year. You generally have to have a work permit or go through a lengthy residency process to live here permanently unless you’ve got proven Hungarian roots. Here’s a breakdown on the cost of living in Hungary, based on reports from expatriates living there.
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, a place that you could move to from the U.S. or Canada and actually spend half of what you’re spending now on living expenses. The secret is out, however, and costs have been rising each year as the economy recovers and more tourists flood in, especially in the Algarve region so popular with Brits. Lisbon is more expensive than the rest of Portugal of course, so the “half price” part only works there if you’re moving from a big city like New York, San Francisco, or London. But it’s still blissfully cheap once you get outside of the capital.
It’s much easier to move here as a EU citizen than from elsewhere, but with enough patience and some money to pay a lawyer, it’s possible for other nationalities to get long-term residency. Although it’s part of the Schengen zone, Americans can get a six-month visa and then extend it while applying for residency if starting the process in their own country. See this post for more on the cost of living in Portugal.
Czech Republic and Slovakia
These two countries that were one a few decades ago offer similar appeal and prices. The Czech Republic tends to be a bit cheaper outside of Prague though because they still use their own currency instead of the euro. Even in Prague you can find an apartment for rent outside of Old Town from $300 (studio) to $1,100 (2500 square feet in a historic building). Prices can drop by half outside the capital. In small towns two hours from Prague I saw houses listed for sale for under $40k.
In both countries, the average price of a pint of great beer is $1.50, groceries are cheap, and eating out won’t hit you too hard. Local public transportation will cost you a buck or two. For $3 to $15 you can get to anywhere in either country from the capital city, maybe $20 if you’re going for a sleeper train. As with other euro zone countries, living long-term is much easier if you’re European than from outside the zone.
The Cheapest Places to Live in Asia
At the beginning of this article I mentioned the very cheapest countries of Nepal, India and Cambodia, but Asia has plenty of other reasonably priced and popular places to live.
Thailand, the Digital Nomad Capital
If you want lots of like-minded expats around as you work on your online business, then do not pass Go, just head straight to Chiang Mai, Thailand. You’ll find cheap living, a zillion coffee shops with WiFi, and regular meet-ups that will be fun and educational. The street food is so good and cheap that many never bother to cook anything and you can get by for less than $1,000 a month here without trying too hard.
Health care is great in Thailand and you’re always a bus ride away from the beaches. The main downside is the visa situation. Unless you are retired, you’ll probably have to do a lot of regular visa runs, though it has gotten a tad easier in recent years. If you are old enough to qualify as a retiree and you’ve got some money to put in one of their banks, it’s a whole different story.
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. You can live here on a tourist visa more easily than in Thailand, not having to do as many border runs.
If it were easy to get long-term residency in Indonesia, the nation of islands would be flooded with free-spending expats enjoying the good life. Instead, foreigners settle for a while in Bali despite the hoops they have to jump through. Locals have found some creative 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.
On Bali there has been 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. The only real way to stay here long-term without regular flights to Singapore though is if 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. If you are retired, 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).
Malaysia for Nomads or Retirees
Malaysia is not as cheap as some of the other locations in Southeast Asia, but it makes up for it with good infrastructure, water you can drink in the cities, and plenty of English spoken in the western half of the country. Popular Penang is one of the world’s best food destinations and there’s a decent-sized expat community there and in several other cities. They have a formal retiree program in place with a long history: if you’ve got enough money to buy a house, you can easily get long-term residency. While it is not as dirt cheap as Thailand to the north, monthly expenses are still easily half those in a country like the UK, Australia, Canada, or the U.S.
Easy Living in the Philippines
The current president of the Philippines makes Trump look like a stable genius by comparison and Manila is one of the most traffic-choked cities in the world, but get past those factors and this can be a desirable place to live for less. There’s a deep bench of smiling workers who have a native speaker level command of the English language. This is one of the few countries in the world where that’s true. Beer is often a buck in a bar and you can order a round of cocktails for the table without breaking the bank.
You’ve got plenty of beautiful islands to choose from. The expat crowd here is even more male-dominated than Thailand, however, with an uncomfortably large percentage of retirement-aged men who have female companions half their age or less. The overall mix gets a bit younger each year though, with more digital nomads finding this a good place to do staffing and lots of adventure travelers sticking around a while after they’ve explored different islands and found one that felt like paradise.
Can You Live Cheap in Africa?
As I’ve said every year in this revised post and in A Better Life for Half the Price, there’s not much middle ground in Africa for foreign living styles. You either live like an NGO worker, overspending on everything to get some semblance of home standards, or you live like a local, which requires a long list of sacrifices in terms of comfort and convenience. While many countries in Africa should be very cheap if you just look at the per-capita GDP, wages, or a basket of goods and services, it’s hard to maintain anything close to the lifestyle you’re probably used to without living like one of the elites. On that level it’s going to cost you almost as much as you’re spending now probably.
Every year I put out feelers, interview people living in Africa, and do some digging around online, and every year I keep coming back to Morocco. Sometimes South Africa is in the mix, but it’s highly dependent on current exchange rates. In this decade, a US$ has been worth as little as 7 rand and as much as 16. Right now the dollar is still pretty strong at 14, but who knows if it will last.
Old Africa hands who have spent a lot of time traveling around the region say there are pockets here and there where you will find some grizzled expats who have stuck around for a while, like in Togo, Madagascar, or Malawi. For every one of those who have moved to the country for lifestyle reasons though, there seem to be 100 aid workers and foreigners working in oil or mining. So there’s a “foreigner=rich person” bias. There’s just not much of an infrastructure for the middle ground, for living cheaply without turning to dirt floor houses in the countryside or challenging apartments in a polluted major city. Please tell me otherwise if you’re living there now and you’re not a Peace Corps worker, NGO staffer, or spouse of a local living with their family. I keep trying…
The expats have not really gone back to Egypt and since the government recently put a woman in jail after she made a YouTube video outlining her negative experiences there, I can’t recommend it. That leaves us with Morocco to represent Africa. The infrastructure is good, you can find a comfortable apartment for a reasonable price, and for a Muslim country it’s fairly relaxed in its attitude toward foreigners of different faiths. It’s the best value on the continent for travelers in most respects, including transportation, and there’s a wider variety of food than you’ll find in most countries on the continent. Seasonal fruit and vegetables are generally less than a dollar a kilo and you can get a basic restaurant meal for less than $4. Taxis and local buses are cheap and rents run $250 to $750, so a couple could easily live well here on two social security checks or a modest income from an online business.
Other Countries With a Low Cost of Living
If you want to just quit your job and travel around the world indefinitely, you can do that in dozens of countries and spend half or less what you are spending now just to exist. That’s without even getting an apartment, just staying in guesthouses and cheap hotels. If you don’t spend more than a couple months in one place, you seldom have to worry about overstaying your visa. (I’m assuming, of course, you’ve got a passport that’s accepted most everywhere, like one from the USA, EU, Canada, or Australia).
Every year when I put up one of these posts, however, someone pipes in and says, “Hey what about [insert country here]?!”
I’m writing a blog post here, not a book, but I’m also highlighting destinations where you won’t be the only foreigner within 200 miles. Some people want that, but most don’t, especially if they’re not fluent in the local language and they’re not running from the law. But if you want to dig deeper, here are some others to consider.
I’ve got Georgia on my mind, the country not the U.S. state, and I hope to make it there sometime in 2019. The price is right, the scenery is beautiful, and the climate is nice much of the year. The best part? Americans can stay for a year on a tourist visa!
In the same general area, others have mentioned Armenia and Ukraine. Turkey is a pleasant place to live for cheap if the current dictator doesn’t scare you too much. In Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan would be a pleasant place to live in the warm months, especially if you love hiking in majestic mountains.
There aren’t a whole lot of independent expats living in Laos, but prices there are on par with Thailand in most respects, though without the great health care and cheap international flights.
In Europe, you’ll also find cheap prices in three “M” countries: Montenegro (where most foreigners seem to be Russian), Macedonia, and Moldova. Extra points to you if you know where to find all three on a map. Greece meets the half-priced-life threshold if you avoid the popular islands where people are being priced out of their own homelands and head to places that don’t get so many tourists.
The urban/rural divide comes into play in other countries around the world. Even in the USA you could cut your expenses in half by moving from San Francisco to Omaha. So you could find a place to live for half price in China, though I don’t know anyone who has done that on purpose except English teachers. You could find a half-price life in Spain if you choose your spot carefully, avoiding the major tourist zones.
If the idea of moving abroad and having twice as much to spend gets you excited, do it right by checking out the packages at my Cheap Living Abroad site and save yourself dozens of hours of research and dead end paths. If you like to hold a real book in your hands, yes there’s a paperback available worldwide at Amazon. An audiobook on Audible too.
You may have a fear of change, a sense of complacency, or local roots that go to deep for you to make this kind of move. If you’re a good match though, let me save you lots of time and hassle in the planning and doing. After all, what’s your time worth?
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